Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Thunderbolts and lightning, very very frightning... but not as scary as Ofcom in a tizz. Plus mysterious goings-on at Microsoft and an even worse literary pun than last week. You have been warned
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Monday 19/06/2006

Good old Ofcom. It has a very dynamic approach to problem solving – when appropriate, it can sit in silence for years, meditating like a Zen master, inscrutably cogitating. But give it an immediate threat and it strikes instantly, a cobra of unstoppable force.

Or is it the other way around? Today, there are rumours seeping out that the regulator will finally decide on a 2002 complaint originally made to Oftel that BT was unfairly pricing its broadband. Ofcom says it is 'considering all the evidence' – that's some consideration for what must be a fairly limited set of facts. Still, no rush. It's only money, competition, broadband and the development of the UK's online marketplace.

Meanwhile, Ofcom has been far quicker to act against the menace of high definition television. Earlier, it granted the terrestrial TV companies an experimental broadcast licence to send out digital HD TV on an unused London TV channel. The power is very low – the channel's used in adjacent counties, so interference is a possible – and the transmission is limited to the Crystal Palace mast, but apart from that the TV companies are free to send out what they like. Oh, and there's a proviso that not more than 500 people can pick up the signals, presumably to stop naughty importers selling 'Freeview HD' boxes for what is after all a temporary, variable and very local service.

So far, so good. The BBC and its commercial buddies distributed around 400 receivers to their testers, set up their transmitters and off they went. This got mentioned in the trade press and online, and various enterprising individuals worked out that by tweaking ordinary digital TV PC cards they could pick up the signals. There was a burst of activity in the usual discussion areas, and much fun was had. You had to get the PC just right, with a decent graphics card and properly tweaked software, and it took a bit of cleverness with the aerial, but then you got to see high definition test transmissions. This made a number of geeks rather happy.

It didn't have that effect on Ofcom, oh no. Unauthorised reception! Alarum! Within days, words were had with the broadcasters: if this badness wasn't stopped, the licence could be withdrawn and the tests cancelled. I mean, if people actually picked up TV transmissions – why, where would it end? I can't answer that question, and neither can you.

One might consider that having people voluntarily taking part in a test at their own expense would be of general benefit. One might consider that encouraging awareness of HD TV would help the move towards the digital switchover. One might consider that public service broadcasting needs to keep an independent transmission network, and that in competition with cable and satellite systems it had better get its HD groove on. But no. How wrong one is.

And you, you naughty geeks, are threatening everything that by being enthusiastic. Ofcom will have your hides. Now keep quiet and do something useful like abuse a monopoly position or two. Expect a response in 2010. It is the Ofcom way.

Tuesday 20/06/2006

The MIT '$100 laptop' project continues to draw flack. OK, so it's really a $150 PDA, the famous hand-powered dynamo's been dropped from the main unit, and I've railed before about the advisability of introducing three new and untested technologies to an environment where you can't get an aspirin, let alone IT support.

But the latest complaints include the distribution of the device. The project will only sell to governments – which is exactly what people on the ground say should not be done. Governments are concerned with staying in power, with cultivating helpful friends, with making the most of their position. They're also temporary and thus poor at long term projects, but good at diverting funds and resources.

It's far better to deal with NGOs – non-governmental organisations, such as charities, trusts and offshoots of the UN. They're not perfect, anyone involved in the developing world will have plenty of tales of white 4x4 syndrome, but they do hang around, they do have experience across countries, they have better governance and better connections across the board within a country. They're also highly focussed, concentrating on one task, and maintain that focus for decades.

If I was in charge, I'd be out there raising the necessaries to build a decent satellite networking system, together with some robust, simple local gateway box that converted the satellite connection to mobile phone internet access. That would work with existing technology such as Intel's Community PC – designed to survive and thrive in difficult conditions – to provide the difficult business of connectivity to as many people as possible at as low a cost as possible. The terminals are not the big problem, they're just the attractive one.

Wednesday 21/06/2006

Get the facts. Remember that? Microsoft's big campaign against Linux that stacked up various statistics to prove that spending lots of money will cost you less. No matter that many of the figures came from analysts who'd been paid by Microsoft: in the words of Groucho Marx, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?

Now the man behind the plan, Martin Taylor, has departed that employ. The manner of his passing is curious, to say the least: three months ago he moved to the marketing side of MSN, currently in something of a tizz over the launch of the various Live services. And then – bang! He was gone. His name was still on press releases and on interview schedules, but the man himself had vanished. He was tracked down at home by American journalists – nothing can escape the Yankee hack – but refused to comment.

You can, if you wish, track down various rumours concerning his departure: there are 'friends of Ballmer getting the chop' conspiracy theories, there are others concerning secret reorganisations, and there are others that with some specificity mention the sort of reason that can get you fired from any company no matter how friendly you are with the CEO. Mistakes can be made, even by successful executives.

I always tend towards the cock-up rather than the conspiracy theory of history. Given that none of the MS-friendly journalists who'll know what happened are flying the conspiracy stuff, and that the other ideas aren't publishable... in the words of Andrew Wiles, I think I'll finish there.

However, that's not going to stop me sharing this week's very worst pun, for whom we must thank Charles McLellan, reviews guru and possessor of the production editor's instinctive nose for pungent wordplay. Now that Gates is going and his role is being filled by Craig Mundie and Ray Ozzie, the company's subsequent change in direction may best be marked by a renaming of the flagship product formerly known as Longhorn, latterly as Vista, and born of an antique LAN.

It shall be known as Ozzie-Mundie OS. Look upon MS Works, ye mighty, and despair!

Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away...

Thursday 22/06/2006

After a while asking around, I finally get an invite to join Writely, the thin client Ajax word processor that Google bought. It's nominally in closed beta, but as with Gmail you can ponce an invite off anyone who's already in – you get fifty when you join, but unlike Gmail those don't seem to be refreshed. I'm down to forty now. Works with Firefox and IE but not, I'm told, with Safari.

It's a nice little application for documents up to a few thousand words long, a bit posher than Wordpad but not much. It's got justification, font formatting, spell checker, word count and a bit of indenting cleverness, but nothing like footnotes, outlining or picture embedding. You can nominate a list of collaborators for a particular document, email in docs (but not email them out again), save in various formats such as HTML, ODF, Word, but not plain text or RTF. There's PDF, but that's marked rather hilariously as 'Premium/$'. Works for free at the moment, mind. You can also export your document to a blog.

I've been using it a lot more than I expected, mostly because it's a very convenient way to keep notes and to shuttle documents between home, work and the various other places I end up. Sometimes I can have an idea for a column at home and it ends up being emailed between there and the office three or four times over a couple of weeks before I finally nail the lid on the coffin. With Writely, I just bash the idea plus research notes into the browser, picking up wherever I find myself with more to add or a few minutes to spend. No transfers, no pulling it out of the ever growing list of inbox clutter, no messing around with versions. And it autosaves about once ever three minutes, so you can get away with being struck by lightning.

As for the online slowness: it's Ajax, so you don't really notice. It feels like a local edit, because mostly it is. As a mechanism for bashing out articles, it works just fine – and I've written about half my output this week in it already.

There's one little feature that's not really part of the application itself but deserves to be more widely known – the Beta Meter. This is an icon that displays a percentage – currently 62 – and when you click on it, it asks you whether the product is ready to be launched yet. Vote yes or no: when the meter reaches 100 percent "although we realise that it's popular to leave products in beta forever" then it's launch time.

What does it need before prime time? Internationalisation, certainly, and better email integration. I haven't hit any bugs yet, but I haven't worked with big documents or tried importing complex stuff. It's useful as it stands, but you can bet your last megabit that people will be trying to make it do things that no sane developer would ever consider. I hope Writely's new Google overlords are giving them plenty of advice about what happens when you give stuff away to the ingrates out here.

Friday 23/06/2006

Talking about being struck by lightning, the BBC is reporting a sorry tale from the British Medical Journal of a girl who got zapped while nattering on her phone during a thunderstorm in 'a large London park'. A particularly large current flowed in the phone, causing a lot of damage to that side of the girl's head and leaving her with permanent problems.

There's nothing special about mobile phones and lightning – if she'd been whispering sweet nothings to a damp mackerel at the time, the same thing would have happened. Any metal or other conductor in proximity to the body will concentrate the current and create localised heating, explosive and electrical effects. But people have vague race memories of the days when radios had long aerials and the advice their grandmothers always gave of switching off during a thunderstorm, and doubtless that will get munged up with the whole 'mobile phone masts are killing our children with deadly rays' notion. That's despite the fact that the BMJ managed to find a whole three people who'd been killed by being struck by lightning while on their mobiles. That's three. Ever. More people will choke to death on aardvark bones this weekend.

The rules of lightning are simple. Don't stand around in a field when there's a thunderstorm on – and if you must, don't handle lumps of metal. Umbrellas are really silly, and I'd give pole-vaulting a miss. Get inside a building. Get inside a car. If you can, get inside a cage made of chicken wire; that way, you can enjoy a direct hit with nothing more than ringing in your ears and a noseful of ozone. And if that really appeals, you should get in touch with the Lighting On Demand people or the UK Tesla Coil Builders, who may spark your enthusiasm further.

None of that matters, from now until the end of time there'll be people who think that mobile phones attract lightening – which means there'll be people selling magic patches that de-ionise the hertzian waves and repel the thunder gods.

I hope they work. I'm buying a whole pile, because it's the weekend of my birthday picnic on Hampstead Heath. Find out where it is, and you can come too! But please – no pole vaulting.

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