Rupert Goodwins' Diary

A guide to healthy IT, an unhealthy obsession with PRs and telco nonsense from home and abroad

Monday 17/10/2005

It's Monday morning, which means none of the Great Engines Of Industry have been at work since Friday. This makes life hard for people such as ourselves who report on Great Engines: the one consolation is that it's even harder for our comrades on the Monday editions of the nationals. We can slap stuff up during the day as the GEs of I gradually crank into action: the inkies are stuck with whatever they can scrape together on a Sunday afternoon.

Which fact is also well known to PRs, who take the opportunity to slide in those client-pleasing funnies which would normally not get a look-in. Hence today's "Email Makes You Fat" non-story that decorates even the poshest paper. According to "Sport England", our reliance on email (and presumably IM, though it doesn't say) has led to us never getting up from our desks to go and gossip with our workmates. Instead, we swap anecdotes over the LAN while gently melting into our chairs. Get up you lazy drones, says Sport England! Close that email client for a day, and work off that flab pacing around the grey beige carpet!

This is arrant nonsense. If it were true, I — who have been using email for more than two decades — would be some giant mound of unsightly blubber…

Er, ok. Let's try that again.

This is arrant nonsense. Even if it's true, asking people to not use email for a day is like getting them to ride horses into work or grow their own gruel. In any case, once we stand up and walk away, we're as likely to go to the snack machine, the smoking room, the pub or some local lard emporium. That can't be what the good people of Sport England had in mind.

A better system would be to accept that we're not going to uncouple ourselves from our keyboards — and what conscientious manager would allow that — but to build in some extra calorie burning activity. An at-seat pedal generator, for example, keeping your monitor on and your tum in trim at the same time.

Or perhaps mobile desks, again pedal powered, that can whiz around the office and bounce off each other like dodgems. After all, we have wireless networking: we might as well enjoy it.

Tuesday 18/10/2005

"Oh dear," says BT. "We don't want to outsource, but we have to. Just can't get the staff over here, you know. No skills. Nothing to do with cost saving."

Unsurprisingly, this story plucked at the heart strings of many of our readers who have had dealings with BT as customers, suppliers or even as some of those famously unskilled staff. "Quality of service appears to be irrelevant. Lack of skills is a joke. I know of three people wanting to join BT who have skills we struggle to get even form the offshore organisations but BT won't employ them because it would compromise their head count objectives," says Anonymous, who also claims to be managing a large project within BT only to get "the Hobson's choice of get rid of an existing highly skilled team working on leading edge IT and replace with an offshore team or close the project down (irrespective of the large customer base the project was supporting) I can tell you the one and only reason that BT is outsourcing is because Al Noor's [BT CIO Alnoor Ramji] cost saving objectives require it to happen."

This is clearly unreliable info from a disgruntled source, and is easy to dismiss. Three people wanting to join BT? As if. Meanwhile, "BT Supplier" says "As a supplier into BT, I have on more than one occasion seen BT's approach to managing the delivery of technology projects — it is a totally committee based approach with no clear leadership. As a smart alec I know BT stands for "bring twenty" (to meetings). It is not the lack of resources or skills — more case of BT's inability to get value from and manage these. On the other hand they do part-own a offshore JV in India — BT Mahindra, that might be where they are sourcing all these skills from."

More total silliness. I've been to plenty of meetings with BT in attendance where they outnumbered the rest of us by ratios of no more than four or five to one. And as for suggestions that there may be ulterior motives involved in the selection of outsourcing partners — wash your mouse out at once.

And finally for this round-up — there are more Talkbacks on that story — a more plausible tale from a named source; Andy Neale, Senior Network Officer. "As someone who was made redundant by BT in the late '90s it is pretty smarting for them to say the skills are not available. Unfortunately they never made full use of my skills and I got a better job elsewhere. It's higher levels of BT management who lack skills... Business and people skills mainly"

Now that rings a bell — which is more than many BT staff I knew in the '80s and 90s could do after they'd been felled in wave after wave of staffing cuts (known in the company as F Off '89, F Off '92, etc). As per usual, the brightest and best made sure they got the finest redundo deals before heading off to much nicer jobs in the outside world — leaving those whose major attributes were a lack of marketable skills but a tenacious hold on employment second only to the Greater Sucking Limpet of Madagascar.

Ah well. It's not as if we're entering a time when a telco's survival depends on exceptional nimbleness, vision and the ability to implement in a hurry.

Wednesday 19/10/2005

The generation game is much loved by marketers. Pepsi, the drink of the next generation. Star Trek:TNG. 3G phones. Ah yes, the phones. I don't remember anyone calling GSM phones 2G, although they were: 3G makes sense, and by the time it turned up mobile phones were big enough to get that sort of marketing attention.

One day there will be 4G, but so far nobody knows what it is. We can guess — greater than 100Mbps, very high per-cell user density through MIMO smart antennas, mesh/grid auto-configuration, multiple levels of service hand-over, first mobile phones using the standard the size of a brick and lasting three minutes. It'll happen, but not until 2010, give or take. If ever there was an industry consensus, that's it.

So here's T-Mobile saying it's launched a 4G service in the Czech Republic. My first reaction was "No it hasn't", and no, it hasn't. Looking through the press release, we find that the service name is "Internet 4G", which is a bit like Hedgehog Flavoured Crisps — a brand that does not accurately reflect what lies within. What lies within? UMTS-TDD, that's what, which is a 3G standard for pretty dull broadband wireless data networks.

We've already got one of these networks in the UK, run by One: you get up to a megabit per second to a box you plug into your computer. It's not a mobile phone service — it doesn't even do voice, although you can run VoIP over it. There are no UMTS-TDD handsets, there are only big fat old modems.

So I fire a note off to the woman who is "PR Counsel for IPWireless" — the company behind UMTS-TDD — and asked how a 3G service could be described as 4G. Here, verbatim, is her answer:

"T-Mobile chose to market UMTS TDD – yes, a 3GPP standard – as 4G to emphasize to its customers the dramatically higher speeds, as well as the services enabled by such speeds, such as streaming video, online gaming, etc. Others, largely media – not operators, choose to classify UMTS TDD as "4G" simply to imply that it is part of the next generation of wireless technologies that enable truly mobile broadband. It is not meant to be a technical term, and as far as we know, there is no group, standards or otherwise, that uses 4G in that sense."

With the exception of certain media who have reported the press release verbatim (you know who you are), has anyone seen UMTS-TDD described as "4G" by anyone?

Didn't they do well…

Thursday 20/10/2005 2.0 is here. It's been around in late beta and latterly a release candidate for a while, and I've already written 45k words in it. It's a landmark for lots of reasons — that famous OpenDocument format which upsets Microsoft so much, a new database module, lots of new features (some of which you might actually use) et cetera. But most importantly, it's got a new interface that, on the word processor module at least, looks very much more like a certain popular other office product than it did before. Things are where you'd expect them to be if you've spent a lot of time in that other office, functions fall to hand easier and you'll spend less time flipping through menus and more time being productive.

It's hard to overstate the importance of this, or of the feeling that yes, another way is possible. That feeling is multiplied tenfold if you watch someone with no computer knowledge at all beyond what they do at work all day sit down at a non-Windows machine and get busy without even noticing. For most people, that starts to become possible with Firefox and OpenOffice and a sympathetically configured windowing system on top of, well, anything really. Convenience is a force multiplier, and OpenOffice 2.0 is big on that.

No doubt, this is why Sun continues to be the major sponsor for the project — so much so that it's not really a good advertisement for open source community development. There are lots of places involved, but the lion's share of the work comes from one place and the hoped-for swarms of independent contributors working hard on a corresponding swarm of features hasn't really happened.

Normally, I'd worry about how that might affect the future of a project — but with OpenOffice 2.0, it may be getting close to feature complete. Just as Microsoft Office did years ago, even if they have to keep pretending otherwise to keep the cash coming in. Perhaps we can all move on now from the dull stuff.

Oh, if you'd like Microsoft to adopt OpenDocument you can sign this petition and take it up on its promise that it'll include the format if enough people ask.

Friday 21/10/2005

The worst kept secret of the week is out — BSkyB really is after Easynet, and to mark its sincerity it's waving a very big cheque indeed, nearly double Easynet's current market value. As has been written, the reason is that broadband delivery of television — IPTV — now makes a lot of sense, and will be compulsory for any TV company very shortly. A friend who's on the BBC iMP trial reports that it works very well: a few rough edges to be ironed out but mostly what you want. It works.

Yet what will it mean to be a TV company on broadband? At the moment, the situation is nicely defined: you sign up to a central distributor such as Sky or cable and then accept bundles of programming collated by that distributor. If I want to watch National Geographic, for example, I have to choose between those two. But on broadband, I can just as easily go directly to NatGeo's own broadband broadcast service — assuming it gets one, and why wouldn't it — and cut out the middle man. TV companies that make their own content will be fine, but companies that exist primarily to sell on other people's products will be hard hit.

A TV company/ISP could always filter out connections to channels it's supplying through a paid-for deal, of course, but it'd be a hard sell persuading its customers to accept a less functional alternative to its rivals. There are various bundling discount options, but it's hard to see any way for broadband access to support the sort of 'here are twenty channels, ten of which you don't want' model that makes multichannel broadcasting so annoying.

Meanwhile, I've realised I haven't turned on my two hundred channel cable TV more than three times in the past month, and then for stuff I can get just as easily free to air. Some time before Christmas, I expect the cost of a Freeview box to fall below that of a month's subscription: for me, Tommy, the TV-over-broadband war is over before it even started.