Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Mobiles may be killing the gadget industry, but the iPod can still help the CID with their enquiries. Meanwhile, BT gets an education and Rupert gets the sea in his blood...
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor
Monday 26/7/2004
An interesting piece in EE Times -- the house magazine for circuit designers -- paints a grim picture for silicon companies. Its thesis is simple: as cellphones become better at doing games, photographs, audio and PDA stuff, the market for all those other gadgets shrinks. Eventually, we'll be buying one device where before we bought five, and people who make chips will have to learn to grow apples for a living.

It's hard to argue against this logic. Convergence necessarily means one box where there were two before, and that means half as many chips. Otherwise, why bother? And so the industry will collapse in on itself, leaving a couple of mangy dogs fighting over the corpse of a once-vibrant market.

Nah. Innovation will keep the market going for a lot longer than the doomsayers think. Camera companies are very good at making cameras: mobile phone companies aren't. An iPod does one thing very, very well: smartphones don't. PDAs may be absorbed into phones, but I doubt anyone would miss them. Single-use devices will have the edge for a while -- they'll always be able to make better use of technology than the all-in-one jobs.

In the end, phones that are just phones work so much better at that job, too. By far my favourite phone of the last few years has been my Sendo 550 -- a tiny little clamshell that just works. You can get one for around fifty quid, new. You charge it up. You make calls. You put it in a pocket and forget it's there. That's it. I've had it for a while now and it's getting a bit battered, and I'm testing its big brother, the Sendo X Symbian smartphone (more on that soon), but small, cheap and pretty is still winning the fight against big and expensive.

Tuesday 27/7/2004
Scoop Wearden is at it again, hassling innocent communications companies and demanding information. Today, it's the turn of Updata, a Danish operator whose mission is to supply far-flung local authorities with symmetric broadband. It's a niche, but a good one -- and to provide the service, the company is one of the few to take advantage of the local-loop unbundling rules that let you stick your gear in a BT exchange.

Scoop sniffs a chance. So, he asks, how is BT about that? Doesn't it resent you lot turning up and demanding house room in their nice buildings?

"Oh no! Not at all." says Updata, which goes on to explain that as it's not doing mass consumer stuff BT is more than happy to help out as much as it can. "In fact," said Updata, pulling out a large photograph, "they particularly liked this."

The picture shows an equipment rack with an engineer standing beside it. You can see the cabling, the various bits of kit, and how it all looks when installed in an exchange.

"When we were negotiating with BT's senior management", explains Updata, "we showed them this. "Oh!" said the BT bods. "So that's what it looks like!" Turns out the people running the service had never poked their nose into an exchange to see what it was they were selling".

Meanwhile, back at the office, we were all excited to get an invitation from Freud Communications to a special press screening of "I, Robot". Well, some of us were excited: the science fiction fans made quiet vomiting noises and stuck pins in small dolls of Will Smith. It wasn't until we checked the details of the showing that we found it had been on Monday, and that attending this freebie would require a modicum of time travel. Perhaps they mixed it up with the remake of the Time Machine.

Wednesday 28/7/2004
I've previously bemoaned the low quality of criminal intellect in London. I'm glad to report that things are looking up a little -- although there's still a long way to go. A gang of car thieves have been nabbed: their speciality was nicking expensive motors and flogging them off as apparently kosher. Cleverly, they managed to forge large numbers of documents that persuaded various agencies of the cars' legitimacy -- and even more cleverly, decided to store all the information on an iPod.

Now, I know that the RIAA and its pals have been banging on about iPods encouraging criminality: little did I know that the lilywhite case of the Apple desirable could harbour such dark secrets. It really is quite clever: tons of room for detailed bitmaps of dodgy docs, FireWire interface to get them swiftly onto and off a computer while leaving no evidence, and of course the device looks like the innocent music playing accessory of choice that it mostly is.

Having had an idea of such evil genius, inspiration then left our South London gang. Although they proved successful at nicking the cars, defrauding the credit agencies and then selling them on, they were less successful at not being seen. In fact, so delighted were they at having possession of all these gleaming BMWs, Porsches, Lexuses and so on, that they drove them around the streets of their locale for weeks on end. And when they weren't driving them, they parked them outside their gaffs.

Unfortunately for them, they lived in some of South London's most unsavoury estates -- and leaving a fleet of £70,000 Beemers parked up outside a flat more suited to Fiestas with the wheels off was a clue so unsubtle that even the Metropolitan Police eventually noticed. The plod went in, searched the place and found the iPod, which was only too happy to divulge its secrets to the PCs', er, PCs. The rest is history -- well, two and a half years in Pentonville at any rate.

There is no truth in the rumour that the next iPod Mini will come in grass green.

Thursday 29/7/2004
Today's delightful revelation is that Microsoft has been granted US Patent 20040145602: "a technique… for organizing and displaying digital photographs based on time." After a research programme spanning years and consuming many billions of dollars, the Microsoft R&D ultrabrain has noticed that people like organising photographs -- and that grouping them by time can be a good way of doing this. I'm upset that I didn't think of patenting this: I already have a few thousand digital pictures and they're mostly arranged by date and time, but it never occurred to me to secure this valuable piece of intellectual property. Now, I guess, I'll have to get a licence from Bill.

However, I think I may be in with a chance with "a technique… for obtaining control of most of the IT industry through aggressive patent acquisition and a billion-dollar legal fund". As far as I can tell, nobody's tried to patent this before -- I could be wrong, but on the evidence of the sort of thing the US Patent Office grants that must be the only reason it's not there already. Some naysayers might claim that there's plenty of prior art --- after all, IBM got the whole gig rolling last century -- but I doubt very much that anyone cares about that sort of thing any more.

Of course, I'll license it to Microsoft -- and anyone else who wants it -- at a very reasonable, non-discriminatory rate. But of course I need the money to protect my freedom to innovate: already, I have a large laboratory of engineers, scientists and lawyers dedicated to pushing back the boundaries of high quality scams with legal protection. Already, I hear that "a technique… for illuminating a room by applying pressure on a switching mechanism connected to a light bulb by means of electrical cabling" and "cleansing of the posterior sphincter through application of paper" are in preparation. Think what would happen to the industry if just anyone could use this sort of thinking willy-nilly -- it would be anarchy.

Friday 30/7/2004
High summer has arrived, and the sun is glittering enticingly on the water below the office. Outside my window, a small flotilla of identikit yachts is queuing up to leave St Katharine's Dock, each steered by a forty-something balding short-cropped bloke in khaki shorts and loose T shirt while a forty-something woman in ponytail, khaki shorts and fitted top looks on, hands on hips. I have a pair of binoculars to hand, and flick desperately from boat to boat hoping to find some differentiation. There is none. I could be looking at the opening scene from some waterborne science fiction movie, Attack Of The Canvas Clones.

What anthropological force has caused this curious cookie-cutter effect, I cannot say. Normally, such an impression of casual conformity would drive me to incontinent gouts of misanthropy, but today it's hard to feel anything but wistful envy at the thought of hitting the high seas for a couple of weeks. Also resentment -- doubtless there are various senior managers from the IT industry in the fleet, which means they're not at their desks perpetrating the sort of silliness that keeps the Diary going.

Which is by way of an apology for the paucity of meaty stories this week -- and doubtless the next. When you're entirely dependent on silliness, the Silly Season means the supply is stretched just that little bit too thin.

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