Rupert Goodwins' Diary

WiMax makes waves, Sony PSP better than flirting, Royals' IT prowess in danger and good news from Geneva. It's all go
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Monday 11/4/05

You know how paranoid big companies are about the press (yes, cuddly, friendly, harmless people like us). You know, if you work for a big company, how seemingly random decisions can come rattling down from unknown higher strata of management to completely muck up some carefully planned and perfectly working strategy.

A story comes back from Andrew Donoghue on his trip to Norleans to see Hyperion flog its expensively complicated software to expensively complicated businesses using expensively complicated sentences. I do not intend to dwell on business analytics, for the very good reason that even to utter those words will darken the skies with brimstone-scented PRs with eyes the colour of smouldering coals clutching twenty-para press releases and non-refusable offers to meet Marketing Directors (EMEA) in hotels near Heathrow. That way madness lies.

But I will dwell on what happened at last year's Hyperion bash. It's a user conference, so there are users there. The press like talking to users because that's who we write for, and some of the highest-powered users are generally corralled into round tables and the like for semi-formal discussions. At last year's European conference, one of Hyperion's superusers was a guy from British Airways' IT department, who'd agreed to get up, sit down and give out for the press, as part of a panel in front of an audience of his peers.

All was going well and the various panel members were being herded into position when BA Bloke (let's call him Nigel) got a tingle on his mobile. It was BA's central PR office. "Whatever you do," Control commanded, "don't talk to the press." (this, strangely enough, really is a large part of a press relations office's job). "But I'm taking part in a public debate with them about, oh, now" said Nigel. "Don't tell them your name, Pyke," said Control, and hung up.

Which led to a most bizarre situation. Nigel was sitting on the panel, but responded to questions with a mute shrug and an apologetic smile. But what one PR can break another can fix: with a certain degree of aplomb, the Hyperion PR said "Well, I'm not press. You can talk to me, right?" "Of course", said Nigel. And so the Hyperion guy repeated everything the members of the press asked, word for word, and Nigel was delighted to give full and useful answers.

There's always a way. If you're lucky, it'll make someone who deserves it look ridiculous.

Tuesday 12/4/05

Intel is telling anyone who'll listen that 802.16 — aka WiMax — is the wireless way of the future. To that end, myself and various other hacks are installed in a small room with sandwiches, orange juice and Sean Maloney, superduper honcho at Intel's Mobility Group. There are PowerPoint slides. There's a printed circuit board with a chip on it.

There is a live demo of a Skype link to an insanely enthusiastic Science Museum employee in the depths of the countryside, rattling around a huge warehouse that contains the museum's off-site collections. Thanks to Wimax, they no longer have to walk miles to find the documentation for their bits, because they can call them up via wireless! Coo! So you've got WiMax in laptops now?

Er, no. Expect that towards the end of the decade. The WiMax bit is a point to point link, like any other point to point link, that puts the Science Museum's warehouse on Intel's bandwidth via the Swindon offices a few kilometres away. The stuff inside the warehouse is good old fashioned Wi-Fi. But look, WiMax works!

There are a few little hurdles to leap before WiMax working becomes WiMax wanted. When will the frequencies be available? Nobody knows. How much bandwidth will be available? All depends. When will someone standing in a field in Devon be able to get their megabits? That depends on the frequencies becoming available, and setting up an infrastructure, and getting the price of the chips down. Intel knows how to get the price of the chips down, and is happy to talk about this bit.

But, um, won't 3G be there first? Ah, no, 3G isn't really for data. It's for voice and stuff like that. Why, some of it won't even do IP! And it's a fragmented standard with different countries doing different things. Intel hates fragmented standards and those nasty people who fragment them by refusing to cooperate with Intel.

Which raises the question that if 3G isn't a success, who'll invest in building out another fast data wireless network? And if it is, the same question works just as well. WiMax's best chance is if 3G is so popular that there's no more bandwidth available on it and people have to move on to the next network. And there are moves afoot to amalgamate the next version of 3G and WiMax, so… who knows.

As for what happens next, well, BT is dead keen on the idea, says Maloney, and will be getting kit later on this year for more trials.

BT? Rolling out a new broadband technology? With its reputation? What can possibly go wrong?

Wednesday 13/4/05

To the Copyright Bar in Wapping for our Q1 party, right outside the brooding menace of the News International empire. Wapping is one of those areas of London that seems to have its own psychic microclimate: everything is a degree or two colder, the buildings a touch more threatening and the sense of foreboding just that bit more forebodery. The venue itself is typische: slightly dodgy disco, bar staff bravely willing to practice their English, and posters on the wall for Smack — a 'dark fetish/BDSM' night — which we note is timed to kick off just as the Sunday Times editorial team gets off duty. All good fun.

Time was, I'd spend such occasions flirting with colleagues, passing on or making up outrageous gossip, persuading people to spill beans — in general, behaving with happy irresponsibility. But not tonight. No, the high spot of the evening shamefully revolved around technology.

First, some background. I used to review videogames for newspapers, until I realised that if the gaming companies couldn't be bothered to come up with any new ideas to play then I couldn't be bothered to find new things to say. Since then I've been allergic to the entire genre, to the disappointment of various friends and offspring. And when it comes to portable tech, although I'm not quite as cynical here as with gaming it does take a lot to make something stand out from the identikit phones, MP3 players, portable multimedia gubbins and what have you.

So I didn't have particularly high hopes for the Sony PlayStation Portable until a colleague pulled one out of his pocket at the party and showed off a few Wipeout moves, followed by some video clips. The whole design is sleek and futuristic in that way I thought Sony had forgotten how to do, it fits in the hands perfectly with all the controls just where they should be. It's smaller and easier to pocket than the pictures make it seem. But all that falls away when you look at the screen, which is as close to having a cinema in your hands as I can imagine. Rudely bright, shamelessly colourful, ridiculously high resolution and pig-whimperingly fast, none of the stats or images of the device will prepare you for the first time you see one in action. Science fiction lives. I want one.

But thank goodness for those proprietary storage formats, which means I won't be able to put my video on the thing. That alone will save me from actually buying one. When that's fixed, then forget the iPod. This is the next must-have gizmo.

Thursday 14/4/05

It has come 'as a shock' to the Sandhurst military that Prince Harry is not very good with computers and in fact joined the Army to play polo. They gave him a test, and he didn't fail — 'it was just to see his strengths and weaknesses', you see, so you can't fail — but he was clearly not at home with Mr Keyboard. Does this mean that the defence of the realm lies in the hands of people who hadn't spotted this beforehand? Ignorance of the difference between milk floats and WMDs in the Iraqi desert is one thing, but not knowing that the Windsors possess between them the technical prowess of an aye-aye — that's worrying.

A thundering incompetence with IT is of course a prerequisite for the highest in the land. Blair is bemused by technology, and while Buckingham Palace has let it be known that Brenda can be found browsing the interWebs I know that Phil the Greek never bothered to read his email. But while most families with sons can rely on the youth to pick up the skills necessary to program the VCR and delouse the PC, the evidence strongly suggests that the Royal Sony will be flashing 12:00 for some time to come.

What can be done to bridge this digital divide, and help these intellectually underprivileged people join the 21st century — if not the 20th? A digital outreach programme needs to be instigated immediately, but one fine-tuned to the specific needs and expectations of this dysfunctional family. If there's one thing the royals like, it's flattery. And for a second thing flunkies, ideally paid for by someone else.

So I propose to get myself seconded to the ranks as Keeper of the Royal Mouse. I'll need an appropriate uniform, of course, something that reflects the dignity of the office as well as the traditions of service that IT companies have always embodied. A nice tunic made out of Blue Screen Of Death-hued mouse mats, with the motto "RTFM. TSMYOYO. STFU." picked out in golden ISA expansion port pins should do it. I shall show my new masters all the deference and respect I normally reserve for our own royal houses of Gates and Schwartz, and on subsequent release from the Tower I'll publish a searing expose of life within the family that'll mean they have to learn how to use a browser to read it.

The things I do from patriotism, eh?

Friday 15/4/05

Lots has been happening this week that's just too obtuse to grab the attention of the mainstream media. One of the most exciting events has been a meeting in Geneva of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) — and with a name like the Inter-Sessional Intergovernmental Meeting on a Development Agenda for WIPO, it's hard to see why The Sun didn't clear its front page. WIPO exists to make sure that all the world speaks the same language when it comes to intellectual property, and for thirty years has moved to increase and extend IP law's reach across countries. Until now, the suspicion has been that this means speaking America's language, and there are no shortage of reasons to believe this boils down to IP as a useful tool for big business. The rest of the world, inasmuch as it felt that such an approach while admirable in its simplicity would not cover all the bases, disagreed to a greater (if you're not buddy-buddy with Dubya) or lesser (that would be us, then) degree.

There have been some unseemly consequences of this, with various interested parties told they wouldn't be welcome at WIPO, documentation disappearing, withdrawal of things like photocopier service and so on. But the smaller countries have learned to group together and say in one voice "More IP is not necessarily good", while the non-governmental groups and their pals have eagerly started to blog what's going on inside the WIPO in real time: no news reporters? Doesn't matter.

The result seems to be very positive. As the EFF, which has been instrumental in throwing the windows of WIPO open, says: "We won big this week. First, there is a genuinely substantive policy discussion going on within WIPO about its obligations to be more than an IP-factory and instead explore its capacity as a positive force for the social and economic development of its member states. Not only was the majority of the meeting spent discussing the excellent Friends of Development [14 countries, mostly Southern. RG] proposal, but the good guys secured two more meetings to focus on reforming WIPO, defeating those who wanted to limit the process to a single additional meeting. Second, WIPO agreed to open the next two events to the 17 non-accredited non-government organizations (NGOs) that fought hard to attend this first meeting."

Doubtless there'll be some form of backlash, as the established interests work out that those little rodents dashing so nimbly beneath their feet ain't going to go away. But there is a new openness, there is a better chance that organisations such as WIPO will be held to their original intent, and there is a sense that previously fractured and powerless interests for good are learning to work together and make things happen. In a business where optimism is sometimes in short supply, that's a splendid place to end the week.

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