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Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Will Longhorn fall short? Will Nokia usher in a new age of repression? What is BT playing at? And what is the connection between ketchup and spam?

Monday 13/06/2005

How are your liberal credentials today? Here's a quick test for you (Daily Mail readers need not play): A virus has been released that seeks out and destroys gypsy music. Is this the first sign of ethnic discrimination among the viral community, or a service to the world?

BitDefender, the Romanian company who added the signature of the virus to their scanner only to receive complaints from users who liked what it did, is unsure. For anyone who is enjoyed secretly replacing the Most Relaxing Classical Music In the World... Ever! CD in their aunt's stereo with an Extreme Noise Terror/Aphex Twin mash-up (then supergluing the drawer closed. And don't think I wasn't tempted), the idea of seeking out and destroying all the bad music in the world is so tempting it's all too easy to overlook the rather poor credentials of those who've tried before. Have a quick Google for Entartete Musik if you'd like a hint - although if you actually are a Romany you may already have guessed.

So that's a bad thing.

Much as we might like the concept of a world free of folk, improv jazz, Coldplay, The Crazy Frog or Kurt Schwitters (I suspect those latter two are the same thing), there are no shortage of people who feel much the same about the things we love. A tolerant, inclusive attitude is required. Indeed, we must defend those who are attacked, even if we loathe their taste in easy listening - although even Voltaire might have been hard pushed to maintain his Enlightenment ethos in the face of his neighbours' 2 AM samba party.

I have a dream - a dream where digital signal processing has progressed to the point where active earplugs monitor all sounds before letting them through, blocking those which fall beneath our exacting aesthetic standards. Then let a thousand cheesy ringtones bloom! They will no longer be able to harm us. Tuesday 14/06/2005

What is it with wristbands?. I will admit to wearing a rather tatty macrame affair a la Keith Richards, in my ponytail days, but now they seem to be official issue for Government ministers and fey young things alike. There's something slightly sinister about them and their regimentation of compassion, as if going about with an unadorned wrist is a sign that you don't care enough or in the right way.

Nokia, ever sensitive to trends among the image makers, is keen to get one on the wrist too. The company has the bright idea that not only could an active wristband contain a phone - not in itself a daft idea - but that with RFID technology it could interact with the surroundings. Walk into a shop, and your wristband will tell the retail machinery what you like buying and how much you want to spend. It can also use motion sensors to detect hand gestures and use these to control home electronics, although exactly where the combination of wrist-powered computing and high resolution multimedia will lead us is an exercise best left to Viz magazine.

But imagine what would happen when the charities get onboard. It's bad enough with the chuggers who cluster around Tower Hill tube with their clipboards and tabards, sensing with predatory accuracy when a passing journalist is too hung-over to put up a decent fight. Once the wristbands gang up on us, broadcasting to their accomplices that their wearers once paid ten quid to War on Want or Save The Tories, there'll be no end to it. Go to a cashpoint and it will primly suggest that while you're there, you might as well transfer a fiver to Oxfam. Go to a bar, and sensors behind the counter will direct the staff to serve first those who have been most generous in their giving. A whole silicon-moderated class structure will grow up, gradually pushing those who don't cough up - or through an old-fashioned sense of modesty, prefer to do so in private - into second-class status.

The Government, always keen to encourage social conditioning where it means they have to spend less public money on that darn public, will push the whole idea just as far as it can. From there, it's just a short step to limiting access to charity-funded public services to those wearing the right wristbands and voila. A completely controlled, self-funding country and nobody actually needed to introduce ID cards.

So, be warned. This is what will happen if you wear one of those plastic fripperies and own a Nokia mobile phone. They are the harbingers of universal slavery, and must be abjured. Wednesday 15/06/2005

To the City, where BT is launching Bluephone - or, as we must learn to call it, BT Fusion. This is a mobile phone that switches to using your broadband when you're at home. As we sit in the plush lecture theatre in BT HQ - the slides still didn't work properly - there is plenty of time to note that 0800 calls are charged at mobile rates from home, that the CEO of BT Retail doesn't recommend you use this instead of a fixed line, that you haven't got the choice anyway because nobody other than BT Broadband wants to touch it and with BT Broadband you must rent a fixed line, and that a tenner a month is a lot to pay for.. er... no, lost me there.

The most interesting part of the launch is the standard around which BT Fusion is based - UMA, for Unlicensed Mobile Access - and which diverts your voice calls to broadband when the phone is in range. UMA is clever because it isn't voice over IP - at least, not in the way that term is normally understood. Instead, it forms a pipe between the handset and the mobile network provider that carries voice in GSM format. You can't link two UMA devices together peer-to-peer: the call has to go through the mobile network fabric. In effect, the Bluetooth or Wi-Fi access point becomes just another cell, and the broadband network part of the mobile operator's infrastructure.

This has great advantages for the operator. Much of the expensive - and surprisingly fragile - IT that makes a mobile network run, such as routing, billing and management, will work untouched just fine with the new system. The customers even subsidise the system by paying for a section of the infrastructure and the cost of the data transfer. Also, by striking deals with ISPs, the mobile networks can turn every Wi-Fi hotspot in the country or abroad into cells.

The story's more mixed for the customer. On the plus side, most of the services they are used to accessing through their handset will remain the same, as operationally there's little difference between mobile and local operation. However, as well as paying for their own broadband connection, the customers are still restricted to a particular mobile operator and many of the benefits of voice over IP cannot be realised. In particular, this means that free or very low cost calls are no more likely on this system than they are on the mobile networks as a whole: control of everything resides firmly with the existing operators. And many of the factors that drive the mobile phone industry - ease of switching operators and frequent upgrades of the phones themselves - do not apply to systems like BT Fusion.

All of this makes UMA an uncomfortable fit for the enterprise. While there are strong arguments for converged mobile and fixed services - one point of billing and support, one point of access to staff, a focal point for unified messaging - it makes no sense for all calls, including staff to staff inside a building, to go through a mobile network

But if BT changes things - as it says it will, with the next generation of Fusion perhaps not being UMA at all - then it's going to have an even harder time convincing the mobile industry to play. Sign up and lose revenue! BT's last effort at this sort of thing, tbe Onephone("BT Onephone is a world first. It's the only cordless phone you can use from your home telephone line and the cellular network.") failed miserably, and with that you could even choose your mobile and fixed line supplier.

Daft, I call it. Thursday 16/06/2005

Those dear hearts at Microsoft are busy trying to get a buzz going for Longhorn. Marketing types know the value of a teaser campaign, dribbling out hints that put just a little light onto the monstrous beauty to come. People get interested, then fascinated, trying to work out what's going to happen next and hooked on a diet of carefully-rationed facts that keep them guessing in a sea of ambiguous promise.

The trouble with Longhorn, at least on the desktop, is that there's so little to trail. You go to a briefing only to find the Microsoftie pushing the incredible significance of having thumbnails in search results. Well, er, right. Or look! You can make this window transparent, and look through it onto the windows beneath! What, like I could with my £400 Amiga twenty years ago? And today, we learn that the operating system will come with templates so you can easily fine tune it to various tasks -- not a bad idea, if you forget that you've been able to script that sort of thing in Linux for ever -- and that there'll be Monad, a new command line interface. In release two. In 2009.

I'm baffled. There's nothing wrong with taking a cool look at peripheral details, bundling up a whole load of minor improvements and announcing them as a significant release: if you got your basic architecture right the first time, you're pretty much restricted to this sort of thing for a while anyway. Likewise, there's nothing wrong with taking your time to extensively test a new feature before releasing it. I know that Monad is a thoroughly good idea. There have been betas out for a while, and it's the sort of thing you want to get right. But how on earth can it need to cook for another four years? What are they going to do with it?

Two plausible reasons suggest themselves. One is that Microsoft has decided that operating systems are pretty much done now, and isn't bothering to commit the sort of resources that could make Longhorn happen in a reasonable time. After all, if nobody's going to bother to upgrade for another hardware cycle, why waste the money? The other is that beneath the hood, some major changes are going on and a lot more is being rewritten than the surface features would suggest. If I had to guess, I'd say that if this is happening it's tied in with the whole trusted computing malarky. Longhorn may look much the same as XP or Server 2Kx, but inside are thousands of elves devoted to protecting Microsoft IP and locking down anything that might possibly offend those who have appointed themselves the guardians of all data.

Whatever is actually going on, Microsoft's teaser campaign with the media is having something like its desired effect but for perhaps a slightly different reason to that intended. I can't wait to see Longhorn proper, not because I'm in awe of what it will look like but because I can't honestly believe that it'll be as big a non-event as the clues suggest.

It can't be.

Can it? Friday 17/06/2005

A couple of weeks ago I was in a small yet luxuriously decorated room beneath a London hotel, taking part in a "Meet ZDNet UK" evening laid on for various PRs by tech marcom firm Fullrun (If you think Tech Marcom is the name of a film noir detective, I would like to emigrate to your world. Send forms). One of the things we talked about was the art of effective press releases - or, indeed, adequate ones. Many don't even get as far as our inboxes, as they fall foul of the spam filters.

As you already know, Professor, spam filters work by spotting various clues within a message and assessing how likely they are to add up to it being spam rather than legitimate correspondence. The trouble with press releases is that they're awfully like spam already - impersonal, over-written promotional documents advertising something slightly sordid. Stuff like embedded HTML, coloured text, CAPITALS, attachments, weird abbreviations and so on only enhances the resemblance - and so PRs who concoct that sort of release will frequently find that it goes nowhere.

What is less frequently known is that a reverse process takes place in the mind of a journalist when scanning a press release. If enough plus points are amassed, something wonderful happens and the thing gets through to the next stage. This is something that Helen Carroll of Octopus Communications clearly understands when she managed to couple today's Silly Sod story - City lawyer is a complete berk to his secretary, is discovered - to one of her clients.

Briefly: a solicitor at Baker & McKenzie was at lunch with his secretary, who spilled tomato sauce on his trousers. He had them dry-cleaned, and then emailed her asking for the four pounds that cost. She's late paying, because she's sorting out the small matter of her mother dying, and he leaves a Post-It note on her desk to remind her.

That story had all the things that makes a chap on a deadline go ping. World's biggest law firm embarrassed? Five points. Underdog gets own back? Five points. Solicitor specialist in computer law and electronic commerce undone by email? Five points. And the killer? Trousers are involved. Ten points. Ping ping ping.

Alas for Ms Carroll, her client - Autonomy owned Aungate- undoes the good work. Aungate? Sounds like a scandal involving Japanese sects. Can't even pronounce it. Minus five points. What it does - email tracking. Ooops, sorry, it's a "total communications management solution". Dullsville. Minus five points. Connection with real story - minimal. The damage was done outside the company, after the email had escaped, and nobody's trying to hide anything. Minus five points. Any mention of trousers on Aungate website? None whatsoever. Minus ten points. Ah, well.

But you can't hang a woman for trying, and a darn fine try it was too.