Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Microsoft's music not sweet to the ear, Sony's stupidity retains its bad taste, Asus has an eye for the future, BT gets touchy at the ISPAs, and something smells funny in online rich media. Something for all the senses this week

Monday 20/02/2006

Oh, it's Monday. It's grey and cold and February, and Monday. What can lift my spirits through the miasma of melancholia on such a day, such a Monday?

Microsoft can. Bless you, Microsoft. For today it has announced to the world that "music, like software development, is both a creative and a holistic form of expression; lots of elements need to work together in harmony to get the right result." I'm more inclined towards Charles Ives' belief that "you don't get a wild ride to heaven on the back of a pretty tune", but still — carry on, Microsoft.

"To look deeper into the musical tastes of the developer community, Microsoft commissioned a survey into UK developers preferred 'music to code to'. The survey's findings were then compiled into the press release below."

Fabulous. Please, please, please let this reveal that the UK developer community is the hotbed of independent spirit and creative anarchy I've so long hoped it to be. Let's see: Top Forty Theme ('Rockall' by Mezzoforte, dontcha know) and Bruno Brookes' voice please:

"In at number four, Stereophonics. At three, Oasis. Number two: U2. Britain's Number One!: Coldplay."

This is beyond sad — although it explains the sorry state of our IT industry. Perhaps they're all Microsoft coders, which would certainly excuse the use of so much musical valium.

I refuse to believe this. If you've watched The IT Crowd, you'll no doubt have noticed, among the Jim Woodring cartoons and the "Fair Use Has A Posse" stickers, posters for the Boards of Canada, a true geek band if ever there was one. Although I'd be more comfortable with their label mates Autechre, long-term exposure to whom will enable the listener to write native Itanium microcode — with a blindfold. In binary.

The odd thing is, most of the coders I know would no more listen to Coldplay than they'd wear a tie. There's such a strong link between weird music and the weirdos who live in computers that I can only suppose the true heads of the UK programming scene smelled a Microsoft survey coming a mile off and promptly scampered inside their iron pentacles until it went away. I hope — and encourage — the UK free software community to rise to this challenge as they have to so many others, and publish their own 'Music to code to' lists that reveal the truth in the world as they know it.

Just send me the press release on a Monday. I like happy Mondays.

Tuesday 21/02/2006

"I loved that little dog," said my pal. "What's more amazing is that my parents did too. They begged me to keep it, even though I'd told them that I couldn't, and when it got taken away they were really sad."

I blinked. "Who took your dog away?"

"Oh, the PRs, of course."

I've seen PRs do some bad things. I've heard they do worse. But stealing a guy's dog? I express my condolences, seasoned with incredulity.

"That's OK" he said. "But now they've killed off the entire project, I'll never get another."

"This dog," I said, "wouldn't happen to be…"

"An Aibo, yes."

Ah. Yes. Sony's killed off its robotic projects — presumably because they're not going to make any money, ever, which seems like a reasonable call to me — and some of its MP3 development. It's sacked the man who brought us the rootkit, and it's back in the game in laptops. Is it a new company?

No. The stench of doom is beginning to puddle around the PS3 for the simple reasons it will cost too much and do too little while being too late. It might have a better chance if it didn't come with Blu-Ray, which is going to drive the cost up dramatically without really delivering a huge advantage, but Sony retains its blind spot on media.

Take the otherwise awesome PlayStation Portable. Around a year old, it still retains the aura of alien technology delivered to earth by designers of superhuman power. The screen is so good, it ruins other devices in the same room even when turned off: forget about the Video iPod, this is by some way the right way to watch video on a portable device.

Yet you can't. You have to buy content on Sony's own ultra-controlled and ridiculously named Universal Media Disc format. These are a cross between minidisks and DVD, with the difference that you can't buy burners for them. The only people who can make them are Sony licencees, and they have to follow Sony's strict rules. The result — the format is dying as a video distribution channel. The films aren't selling, the retailers are taking them off the shelves and that whole side of the PSP is shrivelling on the vine. Sony thought that everyone would be happy to pay again for DVDs they already own — as the PSP has no video or TV output, you can't play a UMD on anything with a bigger screen, so you'll always need to buy both DVD and UMD. Oddly, everyone is not happy.

Sony has been successful in maintaining control over the standard. There are no piracy problems. It has complete DRM in place on the PSP's video capabilities, nobody can take information off it or play information on it without Sony's OK. According to the industry, that's what you need to ensure big profits and a compliant audience. According to the audience, that stinks.

Are there signs of Sony changing policy? Sadly, no. So I'd hold off on the 'Sony is a new company now' theories — Aibo may yet have died in vain.

Wednesday 22/02/2006

There's only one thing that makes me madder than somebody trying to blackmail an entire industry through a worthless patent, and that's seeing others take the opportunity to help stir up the mud.

I have no doubt at all that US patent 7,000,180 as granted to Balthasar Online is worthless — it's an opportunistic bit of gaming that does nobody any good whatsoever.

The company, of whom you won't have heard, makes very strong claims that it is at the heart of basically all multimedia on the Internet. Even the patent itself doesn't support that — it's all about remotely editing rich media over the Internet, which makes sense as that's what Balthasar Online does. But even if you could patent that basic idea, there is prior art stretching back to at least the days of Prestel in the early 1980s. The teenage Goodwins spent some time bashing away on Bishopsgate terminals manipulating text, image and downloadable data over a modem; if it wasn't over the Internet, that was just because the Internet wasn't that kind of lady back then.

More specifically, there was a flood of similar ideas during the dot-com boom years. We found one company, Javu, which not only explicitly offered just about every idea in the patent but even won awards a year before Balthasar filed. They even had some clever technology, licensed from Cornell, which let you edit video over the Net — not bad, in the days before broadband. Not good enough either; Javu didn't last.

But the ideas are out there and documented: on 10 May, 1999, the company announced "JavuNetwork (tm), the company’s network-centric, streaming-enabled, cross-media editing and management tool. JavuNetwork is the first content creation tool that enables users to combine and edit nearly every type of video, audio and image format together with text, and automatically convert them into the finished video format of their choice over the Internet. A Java-based tool, JavuNetwork has an intuitive, drag-and-drop interface that works with any standard Web browser."

Read that in the context of Balthasar's claims, filed Feb 9, 2001. I call bullshit on Patent 7,000,180.

I also call bullshit on Ovum, which put out a press release about the whole matter saying that this underlines the problems at the heart of the patent system — no, really? — and that it had a report about rich media on the Internet coming out soon. Well, fancy that.

Ovum also said how worrying the patent was. So worrying, in fact, that it could reach this conclusion despite admitting that "Ovum has not yet had a chance to examine the patent in full and understand fully the extent to which it covers the creation and deployment of rich media and interactive applications and what this might mean for the industry." Tell you what — how about examining the patent before issuing a press release about it? True, all we did was dredge up some memories and throw a few suitable search terms into the right corner of the Googleverse but at least we came up with concrete concerns.

Sorry if I seem intemperate, but this is the sort of thing that gives analysts a bad name. When a press release finishes thusly — "Either way a mouse with respects to Balthaser's size has roared and the consequences are unpredictable but important. While Europe continues to prevaricate on bringing software patents laws inline with the US, Balthaser's patent awards, and its consequences for leading players, demonstrates both the good and bad of software patents and gives us a good reason for careful deliberation before we follow the US's lead" — I'm either going to fulminate in print or kick the cat.

And I don't have a cat — robot or otherwise.

Thursday 23/02/2006

Who's Asus? Make motherboards, don't they? Or is it laptops? Yes — and monitors, mobile phones, PDAs, routers, wireless access points: it's a big company with a low profile. It's also keen to be seen as an innovator, which is why it's come up with a futuristic design study for a modular, environmentally appropriate PC. You put the modules on a special shelf; they have no traditional connections but pick up power by magnetic induction and communicate between themselves through high speed wireless. Looks snazzy, and you get to send the modules back to the maker when they've become obsolete — I guess you could even print the address and a stamp on the outside of each, so you could just pop them in the post.

But really! It's fun to think of building computers by clipping together modules like so much Lego, but the physics says no. Induction works, a little, but you can't get much power through it — and if you could, how would you get the heat out? And while lots of people have looked at wireless interconnectivity for chips and modules: it doesn't work. Or rather, there are lots of better ways of cooking that particular frog: optical looks good, as do contactless proximity systems, but you can't just lean modules against each other.

Then there's the traditional failure of any 'future proof' computer systems. You get tied into one particular manufacturer, who invariably doesn't have the resources to develop innovations as fast as the rest of the market — which is changing so fast you're quite likely to want to buy a complete new system by the time one particular bit is outdated anyway. And the rest of the market enjoys far greater economy of scale than your particular unique platform, so you quickly get to the situation where it costs more to upgrade one component than it would to chuck the lot and change — something particularly apparent to anyone who uses a video projector and is faced with a £300 bill for a new bulb that could buy a fairly tasty new TV in toto.

So the system as envisaged by Acer, even if it worked, would be slower, take more power, be less flexible and far more expensive than any comparable system built out of more mainstream components. Style can only get you so far. As for the environmental impact: a much more plausible model is for a very highly integrated thin client and very high bandwidth communications to a central server. Then there's almost nothing to distribute and retrieve — all of the heavy work goes on in central locations, which is much easier to manage and control.

Asus is dead wrong. But I'm glad it had a go — and hope it'll carry on. Like concept cars, the role of such experiments isn't to accurately predict the future even if the company can't resist the temptation to spin it thus. Instead, it's to make us think about things we take for granted, things that prevent us from even imagining there may be alternatives. That's the deadliest trap.

Friday 24/02/2006

Graeme "Scoop" Wearden doesn't get out of the office much these days, what with slaving over a hot newsdesk every day. So, when he got his ticket to the Internet Service Providers Association's annual bash, he was determined to make the most of it. Curiously, he's working from home today — and even from the office, we can hear him type very, very quietly.

I IM him, once he has struggled online, for a rundown of events.

As these things go, and as far as he could remember, it was a ripping evening. Faced with the challenge of finding an entertainer who could keep the audience entertained with some gentle banter between awards, ISPA ducked it in favour of a comedian hellbent on taking the PSTN out of the audience.

Dominic Holland delighted in telling the audience that they were a collection of geeks with very little in their favour. The kind of people, indeed, that Mr Holland bullied at school. This baiting nearly had Scoop out of his chair in search of a bit of impromptu score settling, before he worked out that Holland wasn't the tallest chap in the room and probably only ever tormented the under-fives.

The actual awards went well, right up until the Best Light Business Broadband category. BT Wholesale had stumped up the sponsorship, and their chosen representative — who for the sake of argument we'll call Joanna — strode to the microphone and announced the lucky shortlisters, which she said included "Extra Networks".

"Ahem, that's Exa Networks, actually," they piped up. BT, though, hadn't paid good money to get corrected in public (that's Ofcom's job, anyway — Ed), so Joanna put them firmly in their place by declaring: "You're just a customer." Suddenly, the room was swept back to the Bad Old Days when BT arrogance and sloth was blamed for Britain's broadband shortcomings. That's more like it.

Remembering my journalistic training — three evenings in the Star and Garter with Guy Kewney — I asked Scoop whether there was any booze in the place.

"Gallons of the stuff," he replied. "That's where my problems started.

After draining a few glasses with industry bigwigs, Scoop decided to make a run for it while he still had his senses, his house keys and his whole future ahead of him. But as he tried to slip away, he found himself face to face with ISPA's Brian Ahern, a man whose principal PR weapons are a trusty press release and a bottle of a journalist's favourite tipple.

"You're not leaving yet, Graeme," he declared, and before Scoop had worked out there wasn't a question mark at the end of the phrase he was back in the thick of it. Where, he fears, he concluded the night conducting a vox pop about whether one attendee deserved a prize for the most sparkly dress of the evening.

"Did you get her name", I asked, sensing gossip. "Yes" he replied. "Chloe". "Or was that who designed the dress..."

If you spent last night at the ISPAs and spotted Scoop in action, do let us know.... he still seems a bit shaky

Postscript: The future of the Web… is here.