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Rupert Goodwins' Diary

MP3 RIP, the mystery of UWB and dark deeds at Vodafone's 3G launch? The acronymns never stop

Monday 8/10/2004
Later this month, Isleham gets broadband. Like many rural villages in the depths of the English countryside, it's had to wait its turn -- but it's nearly time. Which means that today I get a phone call I've been fearing for years -- "Beloved son, to which broadband service should your mother and I subscribe?"

Oh dear. I lost touch with the broadband retail scene last year, when the technical side of things finally faded away into a welter of industry politics and BT-flavoured posturing. So I have to go online and do my research. Friends are asked, comparative Web sites scoured, support forums mined for signs of goodness and badness. "What sort of usage pattern will they have?" one chap asks. How do I know -- they've never used broadband before.

One by one, recommendations and observations are tried out for size. Tesco Broadband sounds promising and affordable -- but oh, the number of complaints online. And there's no technical detail about the supplied modem -- USB or Ethernet. Another supplier has an unbelievable £9.99 a month deal -- but with an £85 connection fee that puts the annual rate back up to the same price as everyone else. There are capped deals, pay as you go options, mixtures of monthly and yearly prices, free thisses and optional thats. With more than a hundred UK ISPs all putting their own spin on what is basically the same service, it's close to impossible to come to a sensible conclusion.

My own supplier, Telewest, isn't much cop for the Fens (which is a shame, as it's just announced the second free speed upgrade for its customers, so I'm feeling very well disposed towards it at the moment). So I can't even go with what I know -- always a wise move.

Heaven knows, it's bad enough choosing a supplier for yourself without having to oversee the business at a distance of seventy miles on behalf of enthusiastic but untechnical silver surfers. As I've also got to sort out a wireless router, remote administration and my mother's first encounter with the Open University's online conferencing system, this all promises to be a joyous encounter with reality.

Watch this space…

Tuesday 9/10/2004
I'm off to a hotel close to the Edgware Road today to chair a panel at Cal-IT, the California-meets-Europe show run by our European Technology Forum division. It's a good chance for businesses to swap ideas and contacts, and the opportunity to spend a little time in the old country for our transatlantic cousins. It's run in conjunction with the State of California and the Governator himself is due to show -- but urgent matters in Japan of all places have his attention, so we get a deputy.

The panel -- on the future of IT security -- seems to go well. Among the gratifyingly talkative panellists is the reliably garrulous Paul Simmonds, global security bod at ICI, and the urbane yet un-Sir Humphryesque Dr Steve Marsh, who is the bizarrely titled Central Sponsor for Information Assurance at the Cabinet Office. Simmonds is given to making pronouncements such as "People who buy PDAs should be shot!", while Marsh shows a disconcertingly believable brand of common sense. Things start a little treacly, but by the end everyone's firing on all cylinders, the audience is still with us and it's possible to get away with a couple of jokes.

I'm cornered after the panel and whisked away by Bruce Watkins and Laurie Peters-Watkins, the husband and wife team who are CEO and PR at Pulselink, a Californian ultrawideband (or just UWB) company. As tapas are served by London's most flirtatious Spanish waiter, I get the run-down on what the company's been up to. There's a lot to get through -- UWB down cables and over power lines, Russian design teams making silicon do things silicon doesn't normally get to do, chips that'll run every radio protocol under the sun at the same time and still have time to whistle The Star-Spangled Banner in three-part harmony. We also discuss the business of UK UWB -- we'd heard a rumour from a very good source that the UK standards will be very similar to the US, but a bit tighter in some respects. Pulselink knew stuff, but weren't really saying - however, it didn't seem we were too wide of the mark. "Of course," said Bruce as he stabbed a slice of chorizo, "we don't care. Our chips will do anything. Patatas bravas?"

However, our reports of such a rumour do not go down well in certain corners. A company, which shall remain nameless because we want to get some more stuff out of them, phones up and says "Who told you that? It's just not so!" Um, well, we can't say. The odd thing is, both parties to this rumourfest really should know what they're talking about and normally we'd be happy to give either of them a lot of credence. Something odd is cooking in the never a dull moment world of Euro-UWB. Me, I just want some products to play with.

Wednesday 10/10/2004
Vodafone is launching its 3G consumer phones today -- press event in the morning, big party in the evening as well as events across twelve European countries and Japan. This takes some organising, so it's a measure of the company's fearlessness that the London party venue is called The Brewery.

Fortunately for Team ZD, the fates are kind to Voda and the fizz never falters - well, not until the end, and even then an imperious wave is enough to send the flunkies scampering back to find more. There's a bit of a cabaret hosted by Jonathan Ross -- I remember him treading the boards for the Windows 95 launch with the same haircut and quite possibly the same jacket -- together with sparkling stars of showbiz and, er, showbiz.

But we're not here to sink ignobly beneath a sea of champagne and gawp at people with microphones. We're here to sink ignobly beneath a sea of champagne and gawp at people with mobile phones. The one on display -- in some numbers -- is the Sony Ericsson V800, which is really rather fab. We corner a couple of strolling demo elves and press their phones into service to make a videophone call between myself and editor Matt Loney: slightly juddery, disjointed and with a mildly feverish tinge to the cheeks, but the phone copes perfectly.

Scattered around the edges of the venue are various zones showing off the phone's other marvellous tricks -- music, games, streamed video services and what have you. There are plenty of phones available to play with -- and only a token Voda presence to keep an eye on us -- but the things are tethered to heavy tables by steel guitar strings. They're taking no chances with drunken kleptomania, an affliction familiar to anyone who's been to such events. The trouble with geeks is that they will insist on seeing such things as a challenge, and Team ZD is geek heavy.

So we form ourselves into a well-oiled, effective and focused team (one of those is true, at least). The more voluble and demonstrative members form a protective cordon around one of the table, and engage the suits, PRs and demo elves in loud and distracting conversation. Meanwhile and hidden from view, the chap with the best set of safecracking fingers gets to work on the crimped cable.

It takes around five minutes, and we have our liberated phone. There is some lively discussion about what to do with it -- it would be simple just to trouser the device and waltz into the night, and seeing as Voda isn't handing out any units tonight, the temptation is strong. But a sense of duty, conscience and the nagging knowledge that phones can be located in seconds over the network keep our lads from "taking with intent to permanently deprive", in that annoying phrase so beloved of the prosecution.

No, instead a much loved and well respected senior journalist is located and the front men in the team distract him while the phone is quietly slipped into his bag. It's not that we actually want his highly paid, high profile national newspaper and broadcasting slots, but it would be a shame to let them lapse while he's busy analysing the ceiling in Pentonville.

Thursday 11/10/2004
Mun is hard at work in his new Australian life. He's hard at play too -- but if you want the skinny on that, you'll have to ask him yourselves. The work side's fun enough -- his brand of passion for reporting has already been mistaken for aggression by the local IT industry fauna, who may be more used to a more relaxed, laid back approach.

Mun's very good at laid back, just not when confronted with Microsoft executives. Like a leopard -- albeit with less fur and slightly browner -- it only takes a small noise in the bush to get his full attention, and he doesn't let up. Reports filter back that the startled antelope beneath the claws today was Steve Vamos, Microsoft Australia's MD, on yet another of these endless security round table discussions. The subject turned to virus bounties, where people are encouraged to finger their hacker friends in exchange for piles of Microsoft gelt. "This is working", said Vamos, "but we can't tell you about it because it's not a positive news story".

The journos present disagreed: "Look at the Sasser writer -- he got caught with a bounty and it was a big news story, very positive," said Mun. "Yeah, well, that was because the TV got hold of it," said Vamos. "That was because you sent out scads of press releases," said Mun, mercifully leaving off the "you plonker". "Errr…" said Vamos and the room erupted in laughter -- and not in a 'laughing with me not at me' way. A PR leapt in and changed the subject, just that little bit too late.

The rest of the day didn't go Microsoft's way either, with Vamos admitting he hadn't used a non-Microsoft browser since 1995 and Cisco saying that they had to use their own security package in conjunction with IE to make it safe. "But Netscape had tabbed browsing back in 1995", said Mun, "and you still haven't got it." "Nobody's brought it up as an issue," said Vamos. "Until now." My informant didn't say whether this was accompanied by a Paddington Bear-brand long, hard, stare, but even if it had it would have made as little impact on Mun as a lager bubble does on a beer mat.

They breed 'em hard in the killing fields of the London press launches -- a lesson I think is only just being learned on the Sydney veldt. We look forward to more of the same.

Friday 12/10/2004
So, farewell then, Winamp. Goodbye forever, Audion. This week has seen the final gasp from both -- the two MP3 players that got the ball rolling on PCs and Macs respectively have ceased development. Both still work really well, of course, and I for one can't see Winamp leaving my computer any time soon, but the giant space baboon of commerce has eaten them up and spat 'em out.

In Winamp's case, a mid-life crisis compounded by founder company Nullsoft being bought by AOL left the software writers floating on a sea of cash but with a product that had thoroughly lost direction by the time Windows Media Player got serious. With Audion, iTunes and the impossibility of fully supporting the iPod did the stake through the heart bit.

Both deserve iconic status - and I'm sure posterity will award it. For me, Winamp symbolises the raw excitement and sense of revolution that I got when I first hooked broadband, Napster and a fat PC together -- there was an audible pop as the genie surged out of the bottle, and a feeling that something fantastic was just about to run completely out of control. Like all revolutions, it was soon reined in by those who are good at such things and an element of normality has been restored -- but the rules have been changed for good.

There was more. A laptop with Winamp made a bloody good party animal accoutrement, and my inveterate nerdery became just that bit cooler. It was also good for impressing young women: no more breaking the, er, natural order of an evening to change CDs. Nope, a few minutes spent preparing a playlist or two and the food of love would play on no matter what was going on.

Everyone knows this now. It's no more impressive than owning a music centre with a smoked plexiglass lid, and who cares that you've got your entire CD collection just a mouse click away? But for a while, Winamp -- and Audion, for the Mac lads -- made us all part of the future. For that, I will be forever grateful.