Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Intel goes back in time, Trolltech goes back to basics, Ubiquisys goes back home and BT just goes backwards

Monday 4/9/2006

Cack-handed security can be worse than no security at all. Take today's little message of joy: CA's anti-virus software had a hissy fit and turned on a component of Window's own security, declaring it a virus and deleting it. Windows duly fell over.

The maligned file, lsass.exe, is the Local Security Authority Service. It helps with local logins and security policies. It's on just about every Windows system currently running — if you're the bold sort who thinks nothing of pressing Ctrl-Alt-Del to see your process list, then do so. It'll be there.

So how come CA failed to spot this? What sort of testing did they do? Could it have been somewhere in the region of none worth speaking of? Much more of this, and we'll start to see attacks that play on this sort of behaviour, with exploits designed to trigger anti-virus systems to turn on legitimate security mechanisms. There are plenty of biological analogies, where a parasite or pathogen subverts a host system to its own advantage: CA should take note of the Darwinian rewards for not evolving fast enough to avoid this.

Windows does itself no favours, though. That file might well have been a Trojan, or a keylogger, or anything like that. Microsoft won't tell you what it is, doesn't have any mechanism for digitally signing the file or providing it with some form of electronic fingerprint. Some of this is coming with Vista — some only with the 64-bit version, mind — but there could have been so much more the company could have done for XP. Even just a list of what files were on the system and what they did would have helped. Microsoft knew this, but wasn't telling — leaving the job to third parties who didn't have access to all the information.

It's not going to be easy keeping track of what's going on in Vista, mind. With some 16 versions in the retail channel, support and maintenance will be much more exciting than it was with XP with its fairly random Home and Professional editions. Having all those variations to test will make it more likely that companies such as CA will slip up: anyone expecting Vista to bring a new golden age of reliability in computing should put on their jetpacks, pop back to their paperless office and set their cryogenic hibernation units to 2050.

 

Tuesday 5/9/2006

The Greenphone is here. And I want one. The Greenphone is many things: a surprisingly attractive little cameraphone that ships without a media player or operator support, a Linux device, and a Trojan horse for open source. Makers Trolltech want developers to buy it, use it and write stuff for it: the key difference between it and most development kit is that it looks really nice and is eminently practicable. Most dev kit is huge, clunky and centred on the mechanics of software creation: that's fine up to a point, but there's only one way to work out whether a mobile application is really useful out and about, and that's to use it out and about. You can do that with the Greenphone: you can't with most other systems.

That one simple change is enough to get the imagination churning. For example — being a journalist these days is quite complex: as well as finding stuff to write about and writing it, I have to take pictures, perhaps even video clips and sound bites, massage them into the right shape for our content management system, get them and the text into that system, set up the links to the rest of the content, and trigger the content flow stuff that moves it into production.

Now, I can do all this with a laptop and a digital camera, but I'd rather have all that in a mobile phone that I'm not going to leave at home. I can see how to automate a lot of it, but only with something that's highly programmable. Could I roll something that did this in Linux? Well yes, perhaps I could. With the Greenphone, I have a chance to find out — and, potentially, start to evolve what could be something useful to others as well.

What the Greenphone could be and should be is the equivalent of the first cheap personal computer: not just an information appliance but a programmable, flexible, ideas amplifier that spreads by word of mouth. A lot depends on the Trolltech tools, which I don't know, and perhaps the most effective first steps would be to write something that's the equivalent of BASIC to encourage playfulness and experimentation. Unadorned Linux and C++ is a scary place.

I do hope this works. The mobile industry needs to be infected with a lot more individuality, a lot more experimentation.

 

Wednesday 6/9/2006

Perhaps it's oversensitivity, but a little part of my soul sinks when I first come across a brand name like Ubiquisys. It's not just that there are an infinite number of ways of misspelling it with Ys and Is interchanged — at least it avoided using Zs for Ss — but it has that vaguely plastic sheen of a branding company at work, trying to impart general feelings of warm fuzziness without giving too much away. Give me General Electric any day of the week. And you know, even before you get to the web site, that they'll have some swoopy meaningless logo and pictures of pretty people Interacting Meaningfully with technology in an unspecified fashion. Which they do.

Enough of that. What does Ubiquisys do? ZoneGate, that's what. Your own personal 3G picocell — which Ubiquisys has renamed femtocell — which connects your mobile to your broadband when you're at home. And why would you want to do that? Because 3G is so crap, it doesn't work in buildings? No, you cynic! Although it does help build out coverage in a cost-effective fashion, oh yes: nothing cheers up an operator more than you paying for its infrastructure so it can charge you for more services. But it can charge you less, so you can use your 3G phone at home instead of having to have a landline. Only you probably need one of those for the broadband... hey, details, details.

This is different from UMA — the Wi-Fi equivalent — because you don't need a Wi-Fi enabled phone, and Wi-Fi phones take more battery power while giving you less choice. Well, yes, but Wi-Fi phones also work from hot spots and your office wireless system.

The more I hear about systems that patch your mobile phone service to your broadband, the more they seem like a con. You're building the mobile operator's network for it and paying for the bandwidth, while it's charging you (and more significantly, people who call you) a healthy wedge for the privilege. At the same time, it's increasing what the industry calls its ownership of you.

Ownership is a term that telcos and operators try not to use in our hearing, because it's not very nice. But they like to think about it. A lot. An owned customer will buy everything from the one supplier: broadband, TV, mobile services, media, games and so on. The industry is agreed that in the future we will all be owned by someone; they just disagree on who's going to do the owning. Stuff like ZoneGate is important to mobile operators because it prises customers away from fixed line telco ownership.

If you don't want to be owned, then stick to open standards, open software, open networks. Even if they don't have expensively engineered brands and pictures of attractive young couples in soft focus.

 

Thursday 7/9/2006

It's hard to know where to begin with the unplumbable depths of naffness that cloak BT's Movio mobile TV service, as launched today with Virgin Mobile.

Let's start with all the good things that digital TV can give us. You can get hundreds of channels, programmes on demand, subscription-free services from the BBC, ITV and their various offshoots, personal video recording — a rich set of options.

Now, let's have a look at the mobile phone market and all the innovations that make it exciting: 3G's selection of music and video services, a constant stream of new handsets from loads of manufacturers, the ability to take it all with you when you pop abroad, ever-increasing integration with the Internet.

So Movio is going to be a mixture of the finest aspects of the above, right? All the best bits of digital telly, all the best bits of mobile tech, all wrapped up in one irresistible package?

Naw. This is BT, remember. What you get is a choice of one — that's one — 2G-only handset, which, while it has a certain modernist rakishness, looks like it might double as a gas cooker lighter. And that handset runs Windows Mobile, which may not be everyone's cup of tea. It has to, though, because the TV pictures are all locked down with Windows Digital Rights Management. That means you can't record them, move them off the phone or do anything else with them other than watch them at the time they're transmitted.

But that's OK, because the rights of the broadcasters are being protected from all those mobile TV piracy rings — so there's lots of great content, right? Wrong. You have a choice of BBC1, ITV, E4 and some form of pre-recorded Channel 4. But those channels are further limited: some sports, some films and some American stuff will be missing, because they haven't managed to get the rights for them. They also can't get the rights for the adverts, of all things.

So that means pay-as-you-go Virgins get to pay five quid a month extra for a reduced set of four otherwise free-to-air channels, with a chance that BBC1 will go away after a year because that's only on there as an experiment. People on £25 a month or higher tariffs can get it for free. Lucky people.

Still, it's digital. Top quality. But sadly, no. DAB hasn't got much bandwidth, so the pictures are cut down to fit the display — and while we haven't had a chance to play with the service, we know all too well how good DAB is for radio on the move. It burbles. It crunches. It makes that odd DABby sound like a frog gargling marbles. Whatever that does to TV pictures, we don't know — but you're unlikely to mistake it for HD.

There are good things. There's a seven-day electronic programme guide. There's a red button for interactiveness, although heaven only knows what it'll do. There's Pamela Anderson fronting the service: ironic, given that Movio is highly unlikely to have the rights to any of her famous oeuvre. There's nothing else to say.

If you really must have TV on the move, you can get analogue telly and radio for £45 or mobile Freeview for £120. Neither will cost you a penny more ever, you can watch them while making a phone call, and you can keep your choice of handsets and services.

You'll still have to light your cooker yourself, though.

 

Friday 8/9/2006

Surprisingly chipper today, due entirely to complete incompetence last night in getting drinks at a party. This is shocking incompetence on my part, and in no way reflects on the fine efforts of Intel in throwing the party in question, to celebrate 25 years of the IBM PC. The company took over large parts of the Design Museum at Butlers Wharf: drinks and food downstairs, Formula 1 cars on one level and old computers at the top. No food and drinks allowed near the exhibits, y'see, and that's where I was most of the time.

High marks to Intel in having some non-Intel computers on show — Commodore PET, BBC Micro, Sinclair ZX81 and Spectrum — but not for missing out the Apple II, which started it all off, nor for ignoring the UK's reasonably successful PCs such as Apricot and Amstrad. Some naughty person programmed the ZX81 to scroll "ZILOG RULEZ" across its screen, and then watched with considerable amusement as senior Intel staff struggled and failed to work out the Sinclair BASIC single-key keyword entry system in order to delete this. It was also fun to watch numerous old hacks fall on the computers of their youth with such heart-rending sighs that I feared that they'd end up on the Sex Offenders Register.

The party wasn't just for that, though. It was also there to promote the launch of a swathe of VPro computers, carrying the flag of Intel's new business platform into battle for the first time. A bunch of the usual suspects were showing off hardware and hyming the praises of vPro's manageability, virtualisation and, er, whatever else it is that vPro does. You know. Graphics and stuff.

Worryingly for Intel, there are signs that the vPro message hasn't quite got through. Some of the partners seem a little underbriefed (Journo: "So, how does this work?" Partner: "The benefits are..." Journo: "I saw the Powerpoints too. But how does it work?" Partner (flustered): "The benefits are..." Journo: "HOW DOES IT WORK?" Partner: "Errr... aaaah... eeer... the benefits... aaah") and I still didn't get an answer to the question I've been asking since the last Intel Developer Forum — can you write open source software that uses the Intel AMT management system?

The most interesting part, though, was afterwards. Having failed to get a drink at the party — again, through no fault of Intel's — two of the crustier hacks and myself retired to the Anchor Tap pub for a couple of pints before hometime. As we left, we brushed past a couple of other partygoers: Intel had also invited hundreds of "IT Decision Makers", some of whom had also sniffed out the Tap. One of them stopped me as I went past and fixed me with an unsteady eye.

"You don't believe any of that stuff, do you?" he said.

"What stuff?" I replied.

"All that Intel guff. It's not going to make the computers go any faster, is it?"

"No, I don't believe it is," I said.

"vPro. Doesn't mean a thing. Just same old stuff in a different box. Now, if they bothered to make the network go better, that'd be something good. That's what's holding everything up."

And so on, at some length, quite possibly for long after I'd gone.

It seems that after decades of teaching the customer that faster equals better, there's a lot of inertia to overcome in getting them to swallow anything else (apart from free cava and canapes). It's going to take a lot of work to change that thinking.