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Rupert Goodwins' Diary

It's not all glamour in IT journalism, you know. Apart from the boat trips, Monaco, secret networks and Kate Adie's ankles, that is...

Monday 6/06/2005

Two weeks off: where to begin?

Last week’s diary was swallowed up by Dell, who distracted me by two days in Monaco showing off the products due over the next few months. Can’t talk about most of them, but don’t go expecting any massive changes in company strategy. High points? “People ask how much we spend on research and development. We leverage the research and development of the entire industry.” -- in other words, wait for everyone to expensively distill what actually works, nip in, nab that and expertly drain the margins out of the business. Ruthless, but you have to admit it works.You’d have to be bonkers to go up against the Dell machine -- and it’s reaching its tendrils into the data centre, support and maintenance, gaming and services.

Other good bits: seeing a pre-release image of King Kong from the Peter Jackson movie due out at the end of the year, two months before anything is going to be published; hearing Dell talk sense about recycling and reclaimation, even if you know the company’s fulfilling legal obligations and giving it a bit of a spin.

Bad bits: The bloke from Oracle who shouted his presentation in a small room, then prefixed every other answer “Larry says…” with the same fervour as a People’s Revolutionary Army lieutenant waving a picture of Mao. Car analogies -- endless car analogies. I know we were next to Monte Carlo, but did we really need “IT is like Formula 1 -- you need great kit and a great team behind you”, together with Powerpoint clip art? And this was the morning after the night before: I was rough enough, but lord knows how the youngsters managed. But they went clubbing and bumped into Bono, which is worth a bit of pain.

Easy bit: signing the non-disclosure agreement on a Longhorn demo. Is it breaking the NDA to say that even if I thought very hard about it, nothing I saw would be interesting enough to disclose even if I wanted to?

Hard bit: Having to give back this Latitude X1 I borrowed for the trip.

Anyway, that’s last week. This week -- in fact, today -- is supposed to be Lenovo’s special time. The company is launching its first product in the UK since the IBM deal, the first Thinkpad tablet PC. Tablet PCs are dull things, but what with the company history and the Thinkpad reputation there’s enough to give the launch a bit of a fillip. Putting the party on a Thames boat is a little dangerous -- we tend to worry that we’ll be trapped for two hours of earnest presentation before the bar opens -- but the wine is flowing by the time we board, so they get that bit right. “Before we do the speech,” said the captain, “I have to do a safety briefing”. “Coo,” said Matt Loney. “What sort of speech is this going to be, then?”

It then goes badly wrong. There is no PA, so the CEO has to struggle to be heard over the noise of engines and water. There are no curtains on the windows of the boat, so the distractions from outside are far more compelling than the series of quite shockingly bad slides that bounce off the projection screen in the middle of the deck. And when you do concentrate, the speech seems to be a recitation of the spec sheet. How many USB ports do you say it has? Outside, a dingy sailor is knocked off his boat by our bow wash: he clearly didn’t listen to the safety briefing.

And, of course, today was the day that Apple went Intel, thus edging closer to becoming a Dell competitor.The Lenovo CEO made similar noises about getting into that market. As we got back to the pier, blue flashing lights lit up the deck – the Thames River police were pulling a body out of the water. Michael Dell wastes no time in putting the frighteners on.

Tuesday 7/06/2005

Ah yes, Apple. I imagine that if Steve Jobs hears the name Adam Osborne one more time, he’ll invent the rectally-installed iPod and appoint the first beta tester in one swift move. But there’s still no clear answer to the question why I or anyone else should buy an Apple now instead of in a year’s time -- well, except that OS X is so much nicer than Windows or Linux.

I wonder if Microsoft is ever going to make a nice operating system? If you were starting from scratch and designing a domestic OS, you might come up with OS X – but you’d never come up with Windows XP. Intel, which has failed miserably to win any of the new world of gaming consoles and is just one of many smartphone/PDA chip contenders, must be very relieved that it’s got an ally in the home that isn’t Microsoft -- who, you never know, might now be thinking of a PowerPC version of Windows.

Part of me hopes that Apple does have a rough year -- not because I want the company to do badly, but because it might make it and its PRs want to talk to the press again in anything other than Imperial Dictat mode. At the moment, if you’re favoured in court you get the goodies and the info; if you’re not, you get ignored. There are elements of that in the way most companies handle their press relationships, of course, but nobody manages to encapsulate the spirit of Louis XIV in quite the same way as those whacky Appleoids.

Later that evening, I pop along to the Orange fiction prize awards bash. I might have missed Bono in Monaco, but I bagged Kate Adie (got a photo of her feet), Sandi Toksvig, Jenni Murray and other members of the gynocracy. I end the night ganging up with cartoonist Martin Rowson against the achingly glossy yet curiously empty proprietor of an achingly glossy yet curiously empty lifestyle/literary London magazine. We have a drunken philosophical rant about the nature of identity and responsibility in a corporate, technological world while the magazine chap tries to get Rowson to agree to do some cartoons for him, but can’t quite work out how to spell his name. By the end of the evening, I’m not quite sure how to spell mine.

Wednesday 8/06/2005

Fortunately, I recover the use of my higher functions in time for a meeting today with the affable founder of Egenera, Vern Brownell. Egenera make a blade system called BladeFrame -- no, I hadn’t heard of it either -- which relegates all the IO and storage from the blade to the other side of the backplane, virtualising everything. Lots of benefits, says Vern, including reliability, manageability and efficiency, and not much of a downside. Bit of a performance hit, but nothing you can’t live with. Egenera has sold this stuff into big financial companies and the like around the world, and it’s keen to talk about it.

I quickly warm to Vern. He has an engineering background, and that shows through. He was part of the great DEC diaspora, then became to be Chief Technical Officer at Goldman Sachs -- yes, the company with that high-spending secretary -- and formed Egenera, he says, because he was frustrated at how the big IT vendors were quick to talk about all the good things but very slow to make them happen. After nearly twenty years of slideware, I can only agree. Of course, it could be that Vern is also spinning a line -- but he’s so keen for me to talk to customers, this seems unlikely. He knows what he’s talking about, he’s not afraid to name names when he wants to make an example, good or bad, of other companies, and he’s open about what the company might or might not do in the future.

One thing Egenera will do is make an Itanium blade for the BladeFrame system. “Really?”, I say. “Who wants to buy those?”. “We have no idea,” says Vern, “but as Intel is paying for us to develop the thing, we’re happy to see who crawls out of the woodwork”. Memo to self: must ask Intel how many people have paid list price for Itaniums…

There’s a brief discussion about recent events in the industry -- why did Sun buy StorageTek? Why has HP bet the farm on Itanium? Why is Google worth more than Time Warner? -- and other evidence that Captain Sanity has left the planet. It is, as Americans mysteriously say, all good.

Egenera is still growing voraciously, so expect to hear more about them over the next couple of years. And if you get the chance to go and hear Vern speak somewhere -- he was in London to do this at a Future of the Data Centre conference -- don’t hesitate. It’s not just the big names who have something worth saying.

Thursday 9/06/2005

Who on earth wants 160GB drives for a laptop? That would be me, then. Also my parents, most of my friends and, I guess, you too. So Seagate’s latest hard drives, using longitudinal recording to pack its little rice-grains of data onto the disk end on rather than flat out, should be popular.

Actually, I don’t want the drive for my laptop. I want it for my iPod (which is now so full, I’ve had to give up podcast downloads), my digital camera (which can create a gig of data in an hour), my personal video recorder (which I don’t yet own), my PC and my laptop. The digital media revolution -- and I don’t think that’s a cliché -- has come along at a time when we’re more mobile than ever before. Not only do we have more gigs of personal data than entire governments had forty years ago, but we want to take them with us and share them between multiple devices (and multiple friends. Shh).

I used to think it would be a good idea to have a little wireless storage device -- hard disk, battery, radio network -- that could just sit around the place and talk to anything that created or consumed data. I now think that this is imperative.

Two things need to happen to make this work: ultrawideband and agreed ways of sharing data. We could have standard versions of both tomorrow, if we wanted, were it not for the turf battles going on between various vested interests trying to defend old empires against the threat of the new.

But it will happen. My money’s on Apple to do it either first or best, as part of a drive into that infamous digital home, but don’t overlook the possibility of a consortium of Far Eastern companies, high on open source and tired of playing second fiddle to marketeers from Europe and America, sneaking in under everyone’s radar. Five years time? We’ll have a terabyte in a cigarette packet, talking to everything in the house and quite a lot outside. And Seagate will sell more disks then than it’s ever done before.

Friday 10/06/2005

Despite being somewhat more generously appointed than Gary McKinnon, I am not the “UK’s biggest hacker”. Not a hacker at all these days, unless you count running some unofficial Wi-Fi surveys when stuck on a train. It’s true that Netstumbler and Nmap will get you a long way towards extradition to the US in minutes, if you’re curious, although if you’re slightly careful over MAC addresses you’re untraceable. I’m a long time out of the serious game, but even I know this. If the accusations against McKinnon are correct, then either he didn’t know the basics of IP networking or he didn’t think what he was doing was going to attract such attention. Certainly not seventy years in the federal slammer. Either way, this is not the droid the US security agencies should be looking for.

The question now is what happens at the extradition hearing. UK defence lawyers have proved somewhat more effective than the Crown Prosecution Service when it comes to dealing with IT matters -- Aaron Caffrey got off in the Port of Houston hacking case, because the jury were left with reasonable doubt as to whether he ran the security attacks traced to his computer, or whether other hackers had taken over his PC. And can anyone tell me what’s happening with the Cliff Stanford trial?

Extradition hearings don’t have juries, though, and judges are much more savvy to the tricks of the trade. They also tend to give more weight to officialdom, and there’s not much doubt that the US is keen to portray McKinnon as a severely dangerous animal. If what’s been published so far is the best evidence that they’ve got, he isn’t. He’s a basically harmless UFO fan looking for evidence, and if your security systems can’t cope with a few eccentrics scratching around after monsters you’ve got more problems than a Roswell air traffic controller.

Let’s hope the judge sees the American bluster for what it is, a bit of extraterritorial arsecovering. Give the man an ASBO saying he can’t go within thirty miles of a space shuttle, or something. Hell, I don’t even know if Fortean Times delivers to Guantanamo Bay.