Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Trouble in Toronto, mysteries in outer space, BT promotes its rivals and the egalitarian Internet recast in traditional style

Monday 12/07/04
Last week's shock revelation that ZDNet UK editor Matt Loney failed to show due reverence to a royal edict concerning his bicycle has clearly hardened the hearts of the Windsors against all things technological. Prince Charles, whose previous forays into the scary world of science have included promoting coffee enemas and carrot juice as cancer therapies, has emerged triumphant from his cameo in "Shrek 2" to join unlikely comrade Bill Joy, ex-Sun tech guru, in calling for care over nanotechnology lest it drown us in grey goo.

You can understand Joy's concern: like any programmer, he'll have had his share of tiny bugs reducing enormously complex systems to a pile of gibbering bits - and would you like Microsoft to be in charge of your immune system? Charles' worries seem more in line with his general unease at the modern world and our habit, post-Enlightenment, of not giving due deference to traditions and status.

Not that there's anything wrong with being cautious about new ideas with potent possibilities. But there is a curious imbalance when one assumes that the products of scientific thinking, born of scepticism and empirical testing, are somehow more likely to go wonky than the idea of sticking several pints of Nescafe up one's bum. One is irresistibly reminded of the classic Onion story along the lines of 'Emily Watkins, 14, has shocked science to its core by disproving evolution'. "I mean, if we're evolved from monkeys, how come monkeys are still here?" she said. "Like, duh!" "How could we have been so wrong?" said Richard Dawkins: "I must repent of my sins at once."

Meanwhile, the Establishment has shown that it's still capable of biting back in other ways. At a BT launch, some mild fun was poked at the company because its chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, has dropped off the medianistas' radar. Two years ago he was fifth in the Guardian 100 Media Shakers list. Last year, sixth. This year: nowhere.

But BT is not taking this lying down. "It gives us somewhere to aim for," said BT spokesman. "And anyway, he used to be an Olympic fencer. He's still got his equipment upstairs and his foils are still sharp. They'd best be careful on that rag."

So that's one for Zorro, two for Joy…

Tuesday 13/07/04
As we head towards the 50th anniversary of the dawn of the Space Age -- 4 October, 2007, will be Sputnik's half-century and party central chez Goodwins -- the state of the art is mixed. On the downside: the International Space Station resembles the ramshackle spaceship Dark Star more and more each day, Beagle 2 has provoked a new spirit of secrecy in the European Space Agency, and the next time we'll see a shuttle will be when someone stumbles across it under a cobwebbed tarpaulin in a shed in rural Georgia. On the upside: the Mars Rovers and Cassini are delivering the goods in spectacular fashion, a whole fleet of deep space observational craft with Hubble at the helm continue to push back the boundaries of our ignorance, and Burt Rutan is close to becoming the easyJet of extraterrestrial travel.

Yet despite extending our senses to the very limits of space, time and energy, one cosmic question remains unanswered: why do people still spend money on satellite broadband? Today's launch is Anik F2, an enormous bird destined to hang above North America and provide its bandwidth-hungry denizens with uncounted 1.5Mbps radio links into the Net. It is the biggest communications satellite ever and the first to provide a public service on the Ka microwave band, a vast rolling prairie of undeveloped spectrum up between 20 and 30 GHz. Anik F2 will host a service called WildBlue, which is up against DSL, cable, power line and every other broadband option, and the lessons of history are that wireless never does well against an existing wired option unless it has something really special to offer. And in wireless, satellite never does well against existing wireless -- again, unless it's got a unique advantage.

Perhaps there are enough people in North America too far from any other sort of broadband, and they're all gagging for their online fix. If not, Anik F2 may join that other band of record-breaking satellite systems; those that have consumed more development cash to less effect than any other communications systems.

Meanwhile, us narrowband satellite fans are in for a treat. At the end of last month, the Russians gave a lift to ham radio satellite Amsat Oscar Echo -- and the news today is that it is behaving beautifully. When they've finished fine-tuning its orbit and configuring its various systems, it'll provide free walkie-talkie access, digital relay services and an onboard BBS. The whole thing's not 10 inches square and the project cost around £60,000. Listen for it bleeping away on 435.150 and 435.300 MHz -- and if you've got an amateur radio licence, you'll be able to talk back. (Just wait for them to get the bugs out first). Who knows -- it might be up there long after the billion-dollar ventures have slipped into expensive silence.

(Update: bad weather has prevented Anik F2's launch. It might go up on Friday.)

Wednesday 14/07/04
Microsoft threw its annual partner conference in Toronto this week, and our recycled, environmentally-friendly reporter Andrew Donoghue was sent out to bring back the Canadian bacon. He duly schmoozed and scribbled, but it wasn't all muffins and Mounties. There was a fair amount of pain, too: the code name for the conference was Velocity, which was bearable, but the soft rock band that opened each day of the conference with The Velocity Song was not. Donoghue was not alone in hoping that the Steve Ballmer's threatened billion-dollar expenditure cut would swiftly find its way to such fripperies and strangle them in their cots.

Yet the pain was shared. A grumpy MS UK bloke revealed that while nobody was exactly looking forward to the Ballmer Billion being sliced off their various comfy benefits, some of the economies were all the more annoying for being dressed up as advances. The MS UK campus used to have a nice-enough coffee shop doling out the all-important caffeine, but it's been shut down and the franchise sold to Starbucks. Great leap forward, right? But even with a company discount, the java on offer is still twice as expensive as before. Now, a technology company can do many things to its employees in the name of Shareholder Value -- tech people hang on in there, mostly because they know full well that they'd never thrive in the real world. But hitting the herds by upping the cost of their major addiction is a sure sign of trouble to come.

On the other hand, you can go too far the other way: a sensible notion of my own survival and future employability forbids me from revealing which UK publishing house used to buy cocaine on expenses for its overworked production staff. Yet you can't help but wonder whether Steve Ballmer had had one double espresso too many when he came up with this high Velocity quote: "With my every fabric I want to make sure that we keep a culture that allows us to continue to be passionate and innovative and, in a certain way, a little weird, a little unique. I think that's very important."

Thursday 15/07/04
We like Skype. The rather funky voice-over-IP service has found much favour with the editorial staff, mostly because it just loads, works and provides a much higher quality of voice call than you can get from the telephone. However, this has led to a run on the various microphones and headsets that have littered the office for years, usually left behind after some multimedia PC has been reviewed and returned. This time last month, there were hundreds of the things dangling their leads out of boxes and cupboards: now, you have to mug a passing teenager for his hands-free kit (curiously, exactly the opposite has happened to Laplink file transfer cables: once valuable commodities tradable for gold and jewels, they now mope around the place like spurned pythons).

For those not so quick off the Skype mark, this has led to dissatisfaction and petty crime. Graeme 'Scoop' Wearden was one such: his moping was made all the more acute because he was writing about VoIP at the time -- to be forced merely to admire the fruits that all around him were guzzling with glee was not to his taste.

Still, a job's a job. His mood was lifted slightly when BT invited him to the Tate Modern to discuss its own voice-over-IP service, which is being done in conjunction with Yahoo. "We are so clever", said BT. "Look, it links to the phone network and doesn't cost any more than your current phone charges!" "But isn't Skype cheaper and better, and didn't Yahoo IM have a voice function anyway?"

"Pish and tosh!" said BT, "now, go away."

Off sloped poor Scoop, pausing only to grab a carrier bag containing the press release and compulsory T-shirt that you always get a these events. It wasn't until he got back to the office that he peered inside: aha! A t-shirt indeed, but also a headset and Web cam!

Thanks to BT, he's now Skyped up to the nines. Microsoft, we look forward to our free Red Hat CDs at your next do.

Friday 16/07/04
Desperate to make amends for declaring a jihad on the technology community, Queen Elizabeth has dubbed http://tim.berners.lee a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Thrilled by this ultimate vindication of his vision, Berners-Lee has immediately set up some new top-level domains, from .cbe to .gcmg, to reflect the range of gongs on offer, and restructured the hierarchy of the Net to more closely reflect that of the British class system, After all, anything that's managed to survive the best part of a thousand years is bound to have the edge on ideas cobbled up by colonials in some dusty Formica-coated lab.

So forget client-server, and most definitely forget peer-to-peer. We're talking peer-to-knight, knight-to-squire and all-to-peasant from now on. The seven layer network model is to be replaced by Upper, Upper-Middle, Middle, Lower-Middle and Lower class layers, with the Lower Class level doing the work, the Upper Class level displaying the results and the Middle Class levels worrying an awful lot about whether they're getting the protocols right. Firewalls are to be made out of sturdy stone, ring'd round with moats, with security management consoles replaced by Major Generals, and kernels with colonels. Forget Active Directory: its place will be taken by Burke's Peerage.

File transfers are to be initiated by messengers carrying unfeasibly long trumpets, with the source and destination addresses read out in sonorous 15th century English from little rolls of parchment tied around with Cat 5 cable. Et, as they say, cetera.

Gentlemen. I give you -- The Queen!