Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Airbus takes off, Microsoft stays home and Marconi's at sea. And why are there no virtual kebab shops on the Holloway Road?
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Monday 25/4/2005

At last! Google's most excellent online mapping system has made it across the Atlantic, and it is now possible to search for pizza delivery companies on the Isle of Skye. There are two. Lucky Skye.

However, this is of little interest to me. How about kebab shops on the Holloway Road? Google cogitates for a few seconds and reports back that there is none. As doner outlets line the Holloway Road like elms along a French boulevard, and as the thoroughfare also happens to contain London's finest shish emporium in the Crystal Charcoal Room — queues regularly form along the street — this is a damning indictment of the limitations of technology. Somewhat more accurately, if you ask the system to find Soho and then locate porn it comes back with a sparse list of ten possibilities, but with VNU Business Publications pleasingly spit-roasted between the Erotic Print Society and the Soho Original Video Shop.

These quirks aside, Google Maps has much to recommend it. It is a superb piece of programming — Web designers tend to emit small yelps of "Impossible!" when they see the map dragged across the screen — and if the user interface bods at Streetmap.co.uk or Multimap aren't already frantically hacking away then I'll eat my A to Z.

It's not beyond the bounds of possibility to see the same basic techniques being applied to other graphical applications of the sort previously thought to be outside the competencies of Web services — picture editing, project planning using large worksheets, even audio and video manipulation. These all use essentially static images that map into large data sets rather than spending their time actually moving the sets around. Could we see a mixing desk built out of Javascript and XML, working with sounds a thousand miles away? It would be an interesting project. Think global, act local never seemed so achievable.

Tuesday 26/4/2005

It's my birthday next month — number forty. Family tradition dictates that decades are celebrated with more vigour than other, lesser anniversaries — and due to timetabling issues I take delivery of the parental gift a little early, a stonking new Nikon D70 digital SLR many times more expensive than I could ever contemplate. Ooh-er. And this evening, the sun is out late enough for me to skip over to Hampstead Heath and discover just how much I don't know about photography.

The technology is wonderful, of course, and I can see why every D70 owner I've talked to enthuses like a spittle-flecked preacher about all the magical things it can do. But like all portable symbols of excess consumption, there's a certain edge to whapping out it in public. When you're burdened down with iPod, smartphone, digital camera and laptop, you've got enough easily-saleable goodies on board to clothe a family in Burberry for a year. I'm all for bridging the digital divide, but not if it means being forcibly divided from my digitals. So a certain circumspection is called for: a wary eye out at all times, what airline pilots call situational awareness.

The other change that a new toy brings is hyper-awareness of other people with the same thing. Hampstead Heath is fruitful for those looking for digital camera owners: the sun's brought out the dog walkers, the joggers and the snappers in equal numbers. I wonder how many of these people are on Flickr, the far-too-cool photo sharing community, and whether we'll end up in each others' pictures (it has happened).

What we need is something like a memory card with built-in wireless and a peer-to-peer server. The good thing about cameras is that you automatically own the rights to the content inside them, so there are no DRM issues. Nikon has tried to change this by encrypting some of the image metadata in its latest cameras, but nobody knows why. It took a day to crack and people are openly mocking the company for such silliness, so don't expect the experiment to stick.

If you choose to share, you can — and with no intellectual property control issues, peer to peer is an entirely blameless technology. Flickr works by letting people share, and since it includes Creative Commons option it makes the terms of that sharing absolutely plain — and we have the ability to replicate that in an ad-hoc way anywhere two or three shutterbugs are gathered together. As anyone taking pictures in the same area as you is likely to share interests, this could be a remarkably effective idea.

Mind you, this does go against the general wish to keep as low a profile as possible. What's the point in keeping your camera in its bag if it is broadcasting "Nick me!" signals across the wireless bands? It was so much easier in the days of box Brownies and bellows enlargers, you know.

Perhaps I'm getting old.

Wednesday 27/4/2005

Congratulations to Airbus, which has created literally high technology by launching the mammoth A380 into the skies above Toulouse. Times have changed since test pilots strapped themselves in for the first flight with nothing but wind tunnel tests behind them: the A380 has been designed to feel like any other recent Airbus and has a very similar cockpit layout — and the simulators the test pilots have trained on are as close to the real thing as twenty-first-century technology can manage. The aircraft had been born, built and flown in virtual reality long before the real thing hoiked itself into the air. It still takes enormous courage and skill to fly something so complex for the first time, but I'd be surprised if any test pilots before have had quite so many reasons to be confident.

Other things have changed on the flight deck. Pilots are a puckish lot, and there's a tradition of referring to the cockpit as 'the office'. This has never been truer than on the A380, where the business end has desks in place of the normal control columns, instrumentation is courtesy of eight high-resolution LCD screens and the whole lot is hooked together with 10/100Mbps switched Ethernet — a version called AFDX, for Avionics Full Duplex Switched Ethernet, if you want to go and look it up. Our production desk at ZDNet UK has a similar spec, although I don't know whether the A380 can run Quark nor whether our team can translate their unmatchable Playstation and Xbox skills into the ability to throw four hundred tons of screaming metal off the tarmac and back again. They're nice people, but I hope never to have to find out. The day I'm at 38,000 feet and a steward gets onto the PA to ask "Is there a network engineer on the aircraft?" is the day from which I never type another acronym.

Coincidentally, the evening of the A380's maiden flight sees editor extraordinaire Matt Loney at dinner with HP's server folk. They have done a lot of work with Airbus, and the conversation naturally turns to the events of the day — as at least one of the journalists present, the evergreen freelance Manek Dubash, has held a private pilot's licence, this provokes a spirited discussion. One half of the table then moves on to another favourite subject, Carly Fiorina — however, Manek (who at his time of life shouldn't really be out this late) fails to spot this and declaims loudly that "She's nice for a ride, but I wouldn't want to live there." He later claimed that he was still talking about the A380; but the rest of the table was laughing too hard to believe him.

Thursday 28/4/2005

Microsoft has been showing various worthies around its new "M Home" in Notting Hill. Yes, it's another House Of The Future! You may not be surprised that in the future, we'll all have Microsoft Media Center PCs in every room, all networked to each other and a central home server that stores incoming digital entertainment from satellite, terrestrial and broadband. And, er, that's it. There are some other bits — a monitor that can turn into a mirror, which I've seen in Houses Of The Future of the past and nowhere else, a digital picture frame and an I.TECH virtual keyboard. It's a sad commentary on the paucity of Microsoft's imagination that the I.TECH is the only device that actually gets the visitors excited, and a worrying hint that the rest of the tech might not be working too well when it turns out that the keyboard is the only thing that the hacks are allowed to actually use. Unfortunately, it doesn't connect to anything else — it has Bluetooth, but the "drivers aren't ready". Ah, well. There's a Webcam in the kitchen but none whatsoever in the bedroom, which seems not to reflect sordid reality, although that mirrored monitor was facing the bed...

There are just a couple of small details to be sorted out before the dream becomes reality. With a large proportion of the UK already enjoying digital entertainment from home servers in the shape of Sky Plus as well as cable and digital terrestrial personal video recorders, why would they want to pay substantially more for PCs that do the same thing? That's if they do the same thing: Sky has gone to some trouble making the Sky Plus service tempting and easy to use, and it's not clear why it would want to hand over any aspect of that to Microsoft. Likewise, other service providers will be only too aware that getting pally with Redmond is not necessarily like cutting a deal with other companies. Oh, and did Microsoft mention DRM during its tour of its bit-stuffed home? No. Odd that.

Here's a prediction for you. The digital home will happen, and it won't be Microsoft. It will happen when the bits and pieces are cheap, diverse and interoperate, so we can go out and pick up stuff from a wide variety of options that won't break the bank if it doesn't quite work. Ask yourself how many of the flood of cheap multi-format DVD players have Microsoft software in, and how many have Linux or similar. Not only does open source software open up the field to hundreds of manufacturers who could never afford to develop the complex software needed to cope with the many variations at the cutting edge of digital entertainment — DivX, Xvid, what have you — but it ensures that new ideas can be propagated very quickly. That will go double for the sort of networking and interface ideas necessary to make the domestic distributed electronic environment a place we want to live in. It also keeps the costs down: how many DVD players can you buy for the cost of one XP licence?

So, uh, thanks to Microsoft for the show, but the future we want is being built out here already.

Friday 29/4/2005

Long faces at Marconi, as BT's decision not to buy any of the company's kit for its huge 21CN network initiative has halved the share price and led to predictions of the company being broken up and sold off in bits. A special mention must go to analysts at Dresdener Kleinwort Wasserstein who said immediately before the contract announcement that Marconi was "so advanced with its products and so entrenched with BT Group plc that its selection looks certain". The crew at DKW went on to predict a large slice of the contract going Marconi's way, with the company picking up the lion's share of the softswitching work as well as substantial amounts of the optical networking and upgrade pie. The share price was going to nearly double, so get in quick. As Paxman would say: yeeeerse.

Marconi has fallen a long way. In the 70s and 80s, the company was repeatedly criticised for sitting on a huge pile of cash, accumulated and guarded by legendary chief executive Lord Arnie Weinstock. Stung by this and conscious that its military cash cows were being put out to pasture, the company decided to get jiggy with it and bought up oodles of expensive telecoms stuff just before the dot-com bubble burst. The resulting meltdown was spectacular. There had been hope that lessons had been learned, and the company had acquired the necessary commercial skills to go head to head with its competitors on price and features, but it seems not to be. This time last week it was a £1bn company with a full quarter of its revenues coming from BT: today, it's worth £500m and won't be providing so much as a cats' whisker to its once-largest client. Oops.

The most intriguing rumour going around at the moment is that one of the 21CN winners, Chinese vendor Huawei Technologies, might be about to buy Marconi. As telecomms networking industry Web site Light Reading points out, Huawei has virtually no experience with BT and has only a smattering of UK staff on the ground — but it'll need some very, very quickly. Marconi has oodles of both, and is now available at an absolute bargain price. Marconi also has great contacts with the rest of the European telecommunications industry, which is exactly what a growing young Oriental company needs.

Hmm. A Chinese takeover of a once great British manufacturing company? Who'd have thought it.

(Meanwhile, The Reg reports that kebab issues are the least of Google Maps idiosyncrasies. Don't even think about looking for French or Spanish nosh.... burgers are on the menu, though. Bon appetit).

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