VMWare is at it again, launching a bunch of tools
to manage and distribute virtual machines across a network. I can't
wait for virtualisation to become truly mainstream: not only does it
have the potential to virtually (sorry) eradicate whole classes of
security problem (run your online tasks in a virtual machine and vape
it from the cosmos when you're done, malware and all), but it should
provide a new and rather tasty distribution channel for open source
software – one that does with ease and aplomb things that proprietary
You'll all have tried live CDs – bootable images of operating
system distributions that take over your PC but don't touch the
existing setup. These are fine, if a bit clumsy: although burning CDs
is immeasurably less painful and expensive than once it was, it's still
a tedious business.
So, why not wrap the operating system up in a virtual machine?
Then you can download the binary, spawn a new environment and run what
you like, again without touching what's already installed. In fact, you
don't even have to stop running the existing OS, which will calmly
reside alongside its new neighbout without even realising it's there.
At this point, we've got to the "try our new OS by clicking this link"
stage of the game, which is hugely advantageous to operating systems
that don't mind – in fact, positively encourage – being copied around
It then gets more interesting. Many Linux distros come bundled
with lots of applications, of course, but once you get into the idea
that you can supply a complete OS along with your application then the
whole idea of “a Windows version” or “a Mac version” of software goes
away. You just pick your hardware – which will be x86, of course – and
produce an application running on the OS of your choice, tweaked as
much as you like to your advantage, and all bundled up in a nice ball
of virtual delight. This sorts out all manner of problems that happen
because your users are installing your software into systems of unknown
health and configuration, and gives you much more control over all
aspects of what the marketeers are pleased to call 'the user
Of course, you can't do this with Windows – you can't tweak
the OS very much, and you certainly can't go shipping it online
willy-nilly. That's naughty. So if you want to have the advantages of a
more reliable, cross-platform application, you'll have to go the open
Against the idea are the usual issues of operating system
pluralism – too many different sorts of user interface confuse the
consumer, different file types and filing systems create
incompatibilities, it's difficult to mix and match utilities and other
applications. These have all been real problems in the past and will be
again. But these days, the emphasis on Web-based services, the much
greater commonality between OS GUIs, and the existence of many more
common file formats, should make things a lot easier.
Virtualisation will rewrite the rules in so many ways. I'm sure we haven't thought of the half of them.
Intel continues to have baffling ideas. It is, as mentioned on Monday,
an x86 world, with the amount of non-x86 processing – on the desktop,
at least – rapidly approaching zero. So the news that Intel is planning
to ditch some of its non-x86 architectures should come as no surprise.
After all, despite a lot of effort, there's still no sign that the
Itanium will make any money any time soon, right?
Only it's not the Itanium they're rumoured to be ready to cut adrift, according to reports
in the Wall Street Journal. It's the embedded stuff – the Xscale and
network processors. Now, these are perfectly good designs which have
taken a lot of the useful components out of the x86 and linked them in
to an ARM core. They work, they're nice and low power, but they haven't
been fulfilling expectations. Why this is, I don't know – the embedded
market is quite ferocious and has a number of established players, and
Intel came late to the game. That may be enough in itself: it's very
difficult to dislodge people with existing relationships to OEMs. And
the embedded world has been more prone than most to dodgy dealings of
the "If you want to buy this chip, you have to buy this other one"
variety – which can lock people into families of components for a long
None of this changes the game Intel's beancounters are playing, which
is undoubtedly ROI based. This business costs us this much and makes
this much in return – is that the best use of our money? Can we assume
useful growth? This sort of thinking, looking at yourself as if you
were an external investor, is why companies divest themselves of
profitable businesses: it's not a matter of making money, it's of
beating the market. Hence IBM getting out of PCs, and hence Intel
getting rid of parts of the company that look to the outsider like
they're doing perfectly well where they are.
Financially astute this might be, but it takes little or no
account of the people involved. Intel has a unique culture that
inspires a lot of loyalty, and that translates to a willingness to go
the extra mile when it matters. Of course, there are always
disappointments in any job – projects get cancelled, bosses resign,
divisions get reorganised – but throwing away a whole market segment
with everyone attached is a bit like lopping off a limb. The shockwaves
can affect all manner of people for a long time, especially among those
who feel most strongly attached to the company.
But does anyone care?
Reports are filtering back from Dell's bash yesterday in Monte Carlo
where Colin Barker, our man in the Saville Row suit and the gold
Rolls-Royce, has been dutifully taking notes.
The bash was ostensibly to talk about Dell's plans for enterprise
servers, but there was much more fun to be had off-piste, so to speak.
“We walked the Formula 1 course going Vroom-Vroom!” said a disturbingly
enthusiastic Colin afterwards.
But that was tame compared to some goings-on. One Brit from Dell's PR
department demonstrated an admirable thirst and hunger for conviviality
– so much so that when he finally decided to call it a night and leave
the bar for some refreshing, reviving sleep he stumbled across some of
his Yankee colleagues having breakfast. "Oh, Americans always have an
early breakfast," was his less than convincing excuse for this sterling
A less than sterling performance was evident from Scotland on
Sunday, which was the only national newspaper to send someone along.
Unfortunately, for 'operational reasons' they didn't send their
technology correspondent. So who got the gig? Science guy? Business?
European? No, they sent the wine correspondent. Still, he was keen to
bone up on his new beat, however unfamiliar it was, and decided to ask
Vroom-Vroom for a full briefing. "So, the head guy,. Patrick Dell,
isn't it?" Oh dear. Still, we'll have to see whether V-V can tell his
Cotes du Rhone from his clarets.
Finally, the waspish freelance Eric Doyle
had the last laugh. One of the freebies Dell bestowed on all who
attended was a little combined USB key drive and radio: nothing
special, but a nice gee-gaw.
Eric unwrapped his prezzie, stuck the earbuds in, fiddled with
the buttons and grimaced. "I say, this radio's broken!", he said in a
disapproving tone. The nearby PR was mortified. "Oh dear," she said.
"What seems to be the matter?"
"It only gets French stations", said Eric – and watched with
some satisfaction as for five seconds the PR (and all around him)
couldn't work out whether he was being serious or not.
And they say technology journalism is dull.
So, everyone's getting jiggy with the Slingbox. Big deal. Hackish Tivo
users have been piping their telly and video over the Net for years.
But you should get excited about the idea not because of what it does
now but for what it will do next.
First, it makes a joke of TV on mobiles. You could pay a tenner a month
for a choice of six channels on one network with their choice of
handsets, or you could get all two hundred channels on your set top box
relayed to anywhere in the world you can get 3G or WiFi.
Then, it means you don't need to stick to the telly anyway. You can
watch your video library, stuff you've harvested off the Web,
videoblogs, what have you, anywhere you like. In other words, you're
your own universal TV broadcaster.
Then it gets really fun. Everyone's noticed that the headline
speeds for broadband have been getting faster, to the point where ten
megabits isn't that special any more. But the upstream speeds have been
getting faster too: once, you were stuck at 256k. Now you can get up to
1.6 megabits. That matters a lot.
A reasonable video stream needs 256k – until recently, all you
could get. With that only you can watch your video. With 512, two
people can watch – and that's enough to change the world. If you find
something good to see and tell two friends, they can both watch it –
and if they each relay it to two of their friends, then seven people
are watching. The next layer is fifteen, then thirty one... by the time
you've gone through the same process just twenty times, a million
people can be watching your video stream, and it's all done through
ordinary broadband. Nobody's using up anything more than their alloted
As yet, the protocols to do peer-to-peer video streaming are still
experimental. They work, just not very well. But they will. At that
point, anyone can put together their favourite video clips, pick of
YouTube, anything they like, and live TV follows Napster into the place
where big business gets very scared indeed.
Everything's in place. Just watch it happen.
And so it starts, this long hot purgatorial summer of sport. I regard
football as I do most religions, a personal neurosis that spills over
into group psychosis, and fine as long as it's kept well away from me.
This is now impossible. The chances of watching television, listening
to the radio, reading a newspaper or talking to someone in the office
without footbloodyball coming into it are, and will be, effectively
zero. All the great pleasures in life – the quiet pint on a Sunday
afternoon in the pub, the gentle murmur of Radio 4 in the background, a
nice walk on the Heath in the sun – will be poisoned. Even bastard
Google has changed its logo.
I had thought that I still had one surefire escape – amateur radio.
Radio hams are not as other men: with few exceptions, they avoid sport
in word and deed. While there are many subspecies of ham – insomniac
octogenarians talking about their tomato plants, hyperactive Italians
sending dodgy pictures by slow-scan TV, lugubrious Japanese discussing
the finer points of aerial erection – Homo Radioactivii Sportiv is rare
to the point of extinction.
So, picture the scene. I am locked away in my Swedish chicken
shed, taking a break from the project. I fire up the ham radio gear,
and try and find someone to talk to on the twenty metre band.
Conditions are poor – as they have been for a while – and most of the
contacts are between stations with kilowatts of power and aerials that
resemble Blackpool Tower. I have a weak little battery operated
transmitter and a few feet of wire, so it's tough going.
Then someone comes back to my call. We exchange signal reports, our
impression of the quality of propagation, station details and so on,
and then I mention that he's got a rather odd callsign. "Ah yes," he
says, “I'm operating a special event station from Berlin. We're at the
football stadium, to celebrate the World Cup.”
"Oh... lovely," I say. "Well, I really must be going"
But he's warming to his spiel.
"There are twenty six special district stations, and twelve
stadium stations," he goes on, " and if you work enough of them you can
get a special diploma."
"Sorry," I say. "Interference. Bzzz bzz bzz. Bye now..."
(actually what I say is "Too much QR Mexico OM, thx fer contact, 73s,
QRT", but that seems a bit silly in print).
So it proves. They're everywhere. I switch off the wireless and stare out of the window.
It's going to be tough.