Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Death March for chameleons, broadband misery in Torquay, measuring the evil in IT, causing chaos in the BBC and some frankly childish jokes about the small screen in the smallest room. Sorry

Monday 16/1/2006

You'll remember last week, won't you, when Graeme Wearden professed himself puzzled by a strange BT video that appeared to be comparing its retail offering to a homeless waterfowl. It struck a chord with Peter Clarke, a childhood friend of mine from the West Country. He runs a language school in Torquay — you know, where Basil Fawlty comes from — and if that isn't enough to be getting on with, his personal biochemistry has gone awry. He's had to sign up for that popular chemotherapy and radiotherapy scheme recommended for all those hip kids for whom apoptosis is no longer enough.

So. Peter, what's your experience of broadband?

"It works at twice the speed of light — from 7:30 to 18:00 every day of the week. Then it connects for a couple of minutes before collapsing in a heap of nothingness. As I get home at 18:30 and my daughter does her homework at 19:30, we're in chocolate sheepdog territory. Daughter blames me, I blame the ISP, the ISP blames BT, and BT stares off into the distance humming the theme tune from Steptoe and Son.

Of course, you can't just call a BT engineer — and I can't email the ISP, because the connection doesn't stay up long enough. I call them on the phone and then they can't call BT because BT's engineering department doesn't work evenings. So the ISP raises a ticket. BT finally gets it, but is programmed to deny all responsibility. The ISP insists: BT then says 'if we come out and it's not our fault, it'll cost you an arm and a leg' — which, frankly, the hospital would rather I kept.

Eventually, BT sends someone out. Is it a DSL specialist? Is it barnacles. It's a standard bloke called Tim or Dan or Dick, who of course can't fix it — because when they do come out, it's during the day when the thing's working fine. We explain the problem, they run their tests, they go away, Eventually, their report trickles through BT's internal bits until it reaches someone who reads it, misunderstands it, says 'no fault found' and cancels the ticket. And round we go again. And again. Been going on for months.

All this time, I'm paying my ISP for broadband I can't actually use. The ISP would fix it if they could, while BT seems constitutionally unable to understand how to fix it even if they wanted to."

But surely there must be some light in your digital life?

"Oh yes. Hope you're sitting down, because I've got something nice to say about Microsoft. Hello? Hello?"

Go ahead. Don't mind the gasping sounds.

"Well, I've just got Microsoft Office — the student and teacher edition that comes in at a whacking discount. I installed it last week at the school, and it went in perfectly onto all the computers except one — which belonged to a co-director. On that, it messed up Microsoft Outlook so badly that the MS Bangalore helpline were powerless to help.

Eventually, I spent all afternoon with dear Amos, one of the research engineers, who spent three hours remotely accessing the messed up computer and with infinite patience, on both his side and mine, he finally managed to get things to install correctly. In total this one installation (the disc cost me £80 I think), Microsoft has spent about twelve man hours rectifying a problem in the registry caused by a corrupt installation file. I think that's taken care of their margins on that sale, don't you?"

A satisfied customer. They should have him stuffed.

Tuesday 17/1/2006

Charles Mclellan takes a break from reviewing duties and pops along to see Corel, who are launching their fancy new CorelDraw Graphics Suite X3. New product, new mascot — enter Carlos the Chameleon, who can be seen bursting through the logo wearing a dashing DayGlo set of stripes. What can possibly go wrong? Over to Charles in the newsroom:

"Where better to launch the product, think the ever-inventive PRs, but London Zoo, where the Reptile House will be able to supply a real live chameleon for the amusement of those other reptiles – the gentlemen of the IT press?

"We duly assemble in the Mappin Pavilion, next to the once-wondrous but now distinctly tatty Mappin Terraces whose apparent sole occupant tonight is a depressed-looking brown bear. It's the middle of winter in North London, where the only native animals are the hoodie and the kebab beast, so no wonder he's pining for the sequoias.

"But Corel knows how to prevent its charges from falling under such a dismal spell. Out comes the suitably green 'Chameleon cocktail' and, once we've been suitably primed not to care too much, we endure a briefing from the product manager. There is a curious and awkward pause in proceedings, a bit like when your parents are trying to gather up the courage to tell you that your father's lost the house in a drunken gambling incident and your sister's run away to the circus. With Mrs Daique, her maths teacher.

"Finally, the nice PR lady approaches the microphone looking slightly uncomfortable: 'We were going to have an appearance from a Chameleon called Christopher' — he's a British Chameleon, you understand — 'but I got a call from the Zoo this morning. Unfortunately Christopher died last night'.

"I'm sorry to report that the news of Christopher/Carlos's demise — presumably from stage fright -– was greeted with some mirth from the journalist pack. 'Are you sure he's not just a bit off-colour?' yells one unfeeling hack. Then we got to wondering: has London Zoo's stock fallen so far that it only has one (elderly and frail) Chameleon to its name? How things have tumbled since the glory days of Withnail and I, where entire packs of wolves looked on hungrily as Richard Grant misquoted Shakespeare by the zoo fence.

"As we filed out past the mixture of Victorian enclosures and Sixties concrete bunkers (many of them crumbling and seemingly devoid of tenants), you could almost hear the word going round on the animal grapevine: 'If a software company comes looking for a mascot, DON'T VOLUNTEER'. Perhaps that's why the bear was looking so down – maybe Microsoft have booked him for the Office 12 launch…"

Wednesday 18/1/2006

My turn to slip the surly bonds of work and traipse off into town — this time to the ultra-humane environment of Charlotte Street, the Fitzrovian haunt of many a posh media company. In an understatedly swanky modern hotel, IPWireless is displaying its wares. At the back of the room, an entire mobile phone base station is whirring away; at the front, a wide variety of portable devices are playing television programmes. This is the launch of TDtv, which IPWireless claims is the best way to put telly in your pocket.

It's an impressive story, especially when compared with O2's identically themed press conference the day before. In O2's favour, it was reporting the results of a live trial across an entire city while IPWireless was here merely promising trials to come. In every other respect, IPWireless swept the board. O2's favoured system needs bandwidth that doesn't yet exist — IPWireless has its all mapped out, with tons more to come. O2 needs a brand new transmission network. IPWireless' slots neatly in with existing 3G systems. O2's system won't scale nearly as well across territories as IP Wireless'.

Time will tell which one works best — if mobile TV turns out to be what people want anyway — but at the moment, assuming there aren't any regulatory issues to darken the joyful picture painted by IPWireless, then I'd put my money on them.

However, there is much fun to be had. O2's live trial had automatic monitoring of what people were watching and also got them to keep a diary. This showed a peculiar usage pattern: everyone had expected people to watch their tiny telly while commuting on trains or buses — but no. Most of the watching took place at home, in the office or at college. While this may reflect on the Oxonian work ethic, it perhaps more closely mirrors the way people read newspapers and books. Which, as the O2 presenter coyly admitted, includes a considerable amount of time in the one place where you can be sure not to be interrupted.

This revelation cheers me up. It also catches the imagination of my Silicon buddy, Jo Best, who is with me at the O2 launch and decides this is the best theme for her story headline. So we indulge in a bit of scatological brainstorming. BBC Twos? Pee-ality TV? Mobile TV — It Knows Its Crap?

In the end, we settle on Bog Standard Telly. "I'm not really surprised at the results of the survey", I tell Jo. "After all, O2 did ask the triallists to keep a log."

Thursday 19/1/2006

One of the biggest problems in IT is measuring stuff. Many an expensive system has been sold on the basis that it will improve productivity or cut down delays, without any real way proposed or implemented to check whether this is in fact what will happen. In an extreme case, a problem can be identified, a solution proposed and a huge amount of time and money expended without anyone ever showing any connection with reality.

That goes for us journos too. We're far too eager to pin labels on without quantifying what we mean. That especially goes for evil. We need a scale, one that's triggered by events. Let's take our cub reporter Tom Espiner's experiences with EMI and Macrovision over the business of digital rights management — or digital restriction management, which is a more accurate expansion of the abbreviation. Just how evil is DRM? Over to Tom, who's kicked Charles out of the newsroom.

"I just had a conference phone interview with Stephen Stapleton, Director, Microsoft Worldwide Media & Entertainment and Andrew Hickey, chief technology officer, EMI, regarding EMI buying MS back office equipment to replace its IBM stuff. That went fine, until I decided to move on to DRM. When I started to ask some slightly tougher questions about consumer DRM and rootkits they told me it wasn't in their remit to answer. Almost simultaneously, the line became noisier and noisier, until the words were virtually inaudible. It was as though they'd put a delay pedal effect on it — everybody's voices were bouncing around like crazy."

Right. DRM causes mysterious and inexplicable chaotic effects if you dare ask about it. Psychic phenomena: five points.

"Later, I called Macrovision UK, as its their DRM that EMI use. The receptionist told me I couldn't talk to anyone as 'they are all out of the country'. What, everyone? Everyone. So I tried emailing the PR using the address on their Web site. It bounced. I tried some obvious variations, none of them worked. I phoned back . "No, we don't give out email addresses." So how do you suggest I contact her? "I'll put you through to her voicemail." And the line went dead. I called back again. "Tell you what," I said. "Just put a Post-It note on her monitor." The receptionist agreed, but we'll have to wait for everyone to come back from abroad before I find out whether it worked."

DRM makes everyone involved nervous and unwilling to discuss it. In extreme cases, they'll flee the country, disconnect their phones and scramble their email. That's another three points of evil. In total — DRM is eight on the Goodwins Scale. And that's very evil indeed.

Time to invent an evilometer to automatically detect the twitches of mischief in new technology. Calibrating it will be fun...

Friday 20/1/2006

A while ago, I mentioned that I'd helped a pal out with her iMP problems. iMP is the BBC's experimental broadband programming system, and it's ace. I can say this with some confidence, as I've obtained an account on it myself.

I'm not a registered triallist though: the account came my way via a friend on another site, who got media access and then wondered what I'd make of it all. Access in this case involves having a user name and password, which get you onto a bit of the BBC's Web site where you can download the client software.

After using the software for a month, I have to report that it's fab. There's not that much content on it at the moment, but there's enough — it's like having a personal video recorder on your PC, but the system's at its best on a laptop. Set up a few series you want to watch on the electronic programme guide, let it harvest them in the background and you've got tons of telly to watch in bed, on the bus, on the plane, wherever. Stop by a hotspot or the works network, and you can top up. I've watched more TV in the last four weeks than I have in the year beforehand, and that's from a strictly limited selection.

However, I soon found that I was missing software updates. On Wednesday, my pal on the trial told me that there was a new version, so I went to download it — and then spotted on the download page an option to update my email address and password. Reasoning that the reason I didn't know what was going on was that the email alerts were going to the original email address, I changed that to my Gmail account — and changed the password for good measure. And thought no more about it.

Today, I get into work to find my editor keenly awaiting (They do this a lot, I find). "Could you call the BBC?" he said. "They say you've changed their password, and they're locked out." What, the whole BBC? Ooops.

It turned out that although the account I was using had been just another PR registration, events had promoted it. The trial had been scheduled to end a little while ago, but the powers that be decided to extend it: unfortunately, this meant that a lot of VIP accounts, including the ones that the press office was using, ran out. They had to move onto whatever spares they had — which included the one I'd been using. And today, they'd gone to upgrade the software on all their machines prior to a big demonstration… only to find some beast called rupertg@gmail had usurped their access.

I quickly reset things to the old account and phoned James at the BBC to apologise. He was extremely nice about it, and filled me in on what's happening next: trial to finish at the end of Feb, report to go up to various important people including the Ministry of Culture And Orwellian Matters, and the Governors. If they say 'OK' then there'll be a big launch of a major new service including live streamed video of all BBC channels and 7 day archive on demand, to be called MyBBC. So nothing certain, but with luck then 'the latter part of the year' should see iMP grow up to a gorilla of a service.

Can't wait. I'll miss iMP — although probably not as much as James did this morning.


Finally – congratulations to our comrades in ZDNet UK sister site for winning the Work Foundation's Online Workworld Award. The Work Foundation used to be called The Industrial Society, and it exists to improve working life around the country. Other award winners included the Today Programme, the Money Programme, and journalists from Dow Jones and the FT. Top notch result, chaps – certainly improved my working life today.