Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Nazi-hunting supercomputers, sinful Bluetooth, fun with Intel and unfolding Origami: just another five days at the Webface
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Monday 27/2/2006

It's time to reveal the latest threat to the moral integrity of the Islamic world. Recent events might suggest caution, but as this comes from a report in Okaz — a Saudi newspaper not known for great variation from the official line — I feel on safe ground.

The revelation comes courtesy of one Khaled Al-Sulaiman, a Saudi who travels widely. He writes: "During my trips to Europe, South Asia and some Gulf countries, I attempted to activate the Bluetooth device on my mobile phone. The only place where my device was able to receive a connection via Bluetooth was inside a shopping mall in Bahrain. Appropriately, the shopping centre was crowded with Saudi shoppers. Elsewhere, the Bluetooth wireless connection was quiet."

We've had our Bluesnarfing scares in London, it's true, and if you do a scan in any reasonably crowded place you'll find a scattering of people with their connections active. That's mostly for headsets, though, and that's not what Al-Sulaiman's getting at.

"This continuous obsession with Bluetooth is confusing. It’s not just a youthful fad. It has extended to the elderly as well. The Bluetooth wireless connection is considered an essential medium for easy acquaintance, digital harassment and other less seemly audiovisual exchanges"

Aha! Unseemliness is rampant, even among the elderly! This is doubtless also fuelled by the fact that Bluetooth is highly unlikely to be intercepted by the religious policemen who monitor public decency in the Kingdom. The muttawa, members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, are very keen to stop anything unseemly at all — you can read much more about them here — but Bluetooth is beyond them because of its short range and the fact that they're not prominent early adopters of new technology.

And see what happens when society slips beyond the control of its guardians? "Unfortunately, mobile phones, Internet chat-rooms, instant messaging, and Bluetooth can all be abused. This abuse is widespread and it proves that society suffers from ethical and behavioural problems. Why is this happening in spite of all the moral lessons we are taught since the day we are born till the day we die?", wonders Al-Sulaiman.

Why indeed? It's difficult to ascertain the moral lesson that Bluetooth is teaching us but perhaps if we all think about it very hard we might begin to understand.

Tuesday 28/2/2006

I'm getting more and more fascinated by distributed processing, not by the technology per se — although that rewards attention — but by the way it accretes around interesting questions. Every time we get towards the edge of human understanding, there it is: medicine, environmental modelling, cosmology, fluid dynamics, cognition all have their massive sets of cheap processors grinding away in the darkness, pressing out into the light.

It's also a great tool for turning pure human will into machinery. Take the story that an ad-hoc network of volunteers are busy decoding some old and uncracked Kriegsmarine Enigma messages from U-boats in World War II. There can be nothing less urgent than a daily report from a captain hiding in the middle of the Atlantic sixty years ago, and in the normal run of things it would be impossible to get enough official resources to make this happen.

But that doesn't matter: it's within the capability of enthusiasts to write some client code to attack the problem through a network of computers, and also within their wit to drum up enough volunteers to build the network itself. If your idea's good enough, you can have the computing power of the planet at your disposal. With Moore's Law continuing unabated, that'll be two planets next year.

It is irresistible to speculate on where this will all end. Obviously, something is afoot: once is news, twice is a trend, but this is happening all over the shop. And the very biggest computers in the world are made not from the most powerful chips, but from those that are sufficiently powerful and sufficiently cheap: the most interesting and important speculative tools we have are being driven forward by one of the most powerful economic and technical forces we've seen combine since Ford.

There are other signs. Grid computing is being paralleled by mesh networks, which are becoming significantly powerful and economically useful. Bandwidth continues to grow, while power requirements per computational cycle are falling — factors of thousands are predicted in the near future. None of this requires fundamental breakthroughs from quantum computing or material science: economic collapse, global war or environmental disaster could stop it happening, but we might as well continue in the hope that none of the above is guaranteed. It's going to happen.

All I have to work out is what exactly it is.

Wednesday 1/3/2006

Some minor kerfuffling occasioned by today's leader, where Intel is mildly scolded for making Skype conferencing call software that doesn't work with AMD. There's no technical reason why: Intel had to include a special 'is this AMD? Then stop' code. There's no legal reason either why Intel shouldn't choose to promote its chips by writing such software; the trouble comes from implying that anything else is going on.

A while ago, our sales bods did a deal with Intel over us hosting an Intel giveaway game or similar, 'enhanced' to run under whichever Pentium had just been launched. Us editorial types looked at the software and asked "Isn't this doing only what you could do on the old chip?", and got told by Intel 'Yes, but we've bunged in some delay loops so it only runs smoothly on the new'. Perfectly legitimate, but tacky — and this has much the same feel about it. You shouldn't need to do that.

And if you've got AMD banging the holier-than-thou drum so loudly, you're leaving yourself open to criticism. This way, you do the work and AMD gets the publicity. AMD's hasn't got a hope in hell of getting anything legally positive out of its opportunistic subpoena, and I have to say it's going to waste a lot of everyone's time and energy to no good effect. At least we all got some free software out of Intel's marketing effort. Still, AMD's getting useful publicity out of Intel's investment.

If Intel had bundled the Skype software with the chips — as opposed to having it available for download with an Intel Only stamp on it — I don't think anyone would think twice about it. The perception would then be that it's linked to your product, rather than "we're free to all" Skype. Or, why not have the getcpuid test in there and still let the thing work under AMD — but with adverts for Intel popping up every so often? That would have been rather fun.

It's not that Intel can't or shouldn't put the effort in to help promote its products by making good stuff to give away, just that trying to be cute about what you're doing and why will backfire. You may remember that Windows 3 refused to run under DR-DOS for no very good reason except that it version tested and spat out an error. You may remember how that went down in court – and regardless of how the two situations aren't comparable, that's the sort of parallel people will draw.

Intel, like Microsoft, gets annoyed that its behaviour is examined with more thoroughness than is that of its competitors. That happens when you're running a near monopoly: life's hard when you're very successful. You'd miss it if it went away.

Thursday 2/3/2006

Tada! says BT. Look! DSL Max! Vrrooooom! We can make DSL go as fast as 8Mbps!

Rupert thinks about this. How does that differ from the DSL you put into my flat in 1998 during the trials?

TaDAAA! says BT. Fast fast FAST!

Yeah, but the DSL in my flat in 1998 would have gone up to eight if you'd have let it. That's the standard. You've just been limiting the rate.

NEEEOOOOW! says BT. DSL to the MAX!

And so on. It's very nice, and it won't cost any more (why should it?), and it's final proof that broadband has become a commodity service which you might as well have, and it shows that competition is the way to make telcos do things that telcos don't want to do. But it's sad that it's taken this long — and that we're not yet in the arena of the 100Mbps home connectivity that other countries are enjoying.

What else has changed in the eight years since BT started testing DSL in public? Well, to quote from that first report of mine:

"You'll notice that I haven't mentioned any of the online services that BT itself has been testing as part of the trial. This is because I never used them, and by all accounts nobody else on the trial bothered much either. BT provided a cumbersome and impenetrable front end to a selection of mediocre content and unreliable services that illustrated only quite how good the unadorned Web is for delivering exactly what you want with the minimum of fuss."

No comment.

Friday 3/3/2006

Origami. The teaser campaign has all the subtlety of Holbein's portrait of Anne of Cleves, which persuaded King Henry VIII to marry her without actually meeting the woman. When he did — too late to back out — the horrified royal could barely contain his disgust. It's unlikely that Origami will incur the wrath of any particular crowned head of Europe, but it'll have to work hard to get over the feeling that's already rampant in the industry: it's a scaled-down Tablet PC that will have a hard time replicating the rip-roaring success of the original.

For future reference, here's how not to completely blow a teaser campaign.

  1. Do not include the real description of the product in the source of your teaser Web site
  2. Do not have your major partner announce the product family two days before you do
  3. Do not tell The New York Times  that the first generation's going to be rubbish. "They will be hefty, at about two pounds, and have a limited battery life of three hours or so between charges, the Microsoft consultant said. A new generation of low-power chips, extending battery life to six hours, will come next year. Later models, he added, will come with screens of four inches or so." That's really selling version one point nought.

I've already described my initial reaction to the UMPC — the Ultramobile PC, as Intel calls the Origami family — when I was given an enthusiastic briefing on it during a trip to Intel Israel late last year. It's too small to be productive, too big to be really portable, the operating system is far too fat, slow and complicated for the task and the hardware burden required will stymie any attempt to slim things down. It's a bigger PDA with the clunkiness of a laptop.

Who wants one, and what will they use it for? OQO's already in the market: although it hasn't been setting any sales records, the company's just announced a tablet version of its original handheld XP device. It's also just got another $20m injection of cash, which may come in handy if it's suddenly got to compete with Samsung and the other brothers. But I've never met anyone who's got one, nor anyone who's wanted one for more than pure curiosity value.

Still, let nobody say I'm prejudging the issue. I'll be at the Intel Developer Forum next week to see what crawls out of the dry ice, and if I'm completely wrong on all points I'll be delighted to take my lumps. Now, has anyone got a monastery I can dissolve?

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