Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Secret messages, Microsoft Strangeness, portable music and duking it out with the Earl — another week in IT meets its peculiar end
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Monday 11/9/2006

Far be it from me to question our own news team's sense of priorities, even though their glorious leader Graeme Wearden is off on two weeks' honeymoon following a successful merger and acquisition in the Oxfordshire countryside this weekend. They're normally well inured to security companies making claims that stretch one's credulity — and today's story, that Panda Labs says it's detected spam emails with embedded subliminal advertising, may on the face of it appear to be one such.

The claim is that some of those dodgy emails saying that a particular stock is about to go through the roof are supplemented (Panda doesn't say how) by "10 to 40 milliseconds" of the words BUY BUY BUY in various positions on the screen. Like mobile phone viruses and the abject susceptibility of Apple's OS X software to attack, such ideas seem more wishful thinking than sober fact.

But the story is justified, I think, for three reasons.

It's the sort of thing that's likely to be picked up by the mainstream media and, in the unlikely event that they get some details wrong, it's good to have something down to present a more technical view.

Then there's the chance to remind people about subliminal advertising, which is a subject that borders on urban mythology. The idea was born in the stew of credulity surrounding science in general and psychology in particular back in the 1950s and, like so many alternative ideas thrived in the 1960s, despite there being no evidence that it worked. Further studies continued to fail to support it, but such information is rarely news. Most people I've asked know that it's illegal but not that it doesn't work. Like witchcraft, the laws against it help promote a spurious authority.

So, not only is it unlikely that the suspicious emails deliberately set out to be subliminal —  after all, flashing BUY BUY BUY is hardly the exclusive domain of psychologists —  but that, even if they did, they'd have any more effect than plain unadorned spam. Some people do respond to these stock option emails, certainly enough to make the exercise worthwhile: one analyst followed the market for a couple of months and found that if you bet on the advertised stocks going down you could make a decent enough profit. But that's unlikely to be the result of advanced advertising techniques: more good old-fashioned stupid cupidity.

And the final reason to run the story is that it's a chance for us to do our own research into subliminal advertising. But that's a story for another day.


Tuesday 12/9/2006

Off to the Apple event this evening, and to marvel at the company's ability to make the smallest changes seem so important. Nobody else could do this, but by swapping in a bigger hard disk, upping the brightness of the screen, making a few changes to the software and dropping in some new headphones, Steve Jobs reckons he's done enough to summon around 1,000 journalists and partners from across Europe to a conference centre in Blackfriars. That's linked by satellite to the main event in San Francisco, where Jobs is strutting his stuff in front of the same sort of number of Americans — and, this being Apple, we all turn up.

As the event is after work, and since our consumer newshounds are also there, I can enjoy it purely as spectacle with no need to take notes or file copy. For fun, I do make contact with one of my more rabid Mac fan friends via IM during the event — he's also on an IRC channel hooked to San Fran, so he's getting it at the same time as I am. But it's good to talk.

The response of the crowd to the unveilings is mixed: the new iPod Nanos and especially the new Shuffle are well received, the online movie store has been so widely trailed and is so poorly stocked that nobody gives it a second thought, and pre-announcement of the the iTV box — it streams your videos to your TV — is lacking in the essential details that will make all the difference.

Up in the press reception and hands-on session afterwards, a wandering radio producer asks me what I thought. "I'm not sure," I said. "Let me think about it..." "It's OK, you're not on air." he said. "Yes," I said, "but..." Another member of the worshipful company of hacks leaped in and gave his much more forthright opinions to fill the gap. I must sharpen up my instant punditry skills.

As I left, a tiny frisson of hope kindled. I could see that the PRs at the door were handing out small packages to the departing throng — could it be that Apple was preparing to undo decades of tradition and hand out those lovely little silver Shuffles to the masses? Perhaps as a mute apology for not really having very much to say, but making such a fuss about saying it anyway?

Nah. Ten free downloads from iTunes.

"But my iPod's full," I said. "No chance of an 80GB upgrade?"

I was out in the cold night air before you could say Cupertino.

Wednesday 13/9/2006

The Zuni tribe of Native Americans lives in western New Mexico. Ancient and peaceable, they are most notable for their language — which is unlike any other. They also do a nice line in fetishes, small objects that contain a spirit with a characteristic personality capable of influencing their owners' futures.

The Zune tribe of native Americans, on the other hand, lives up in Washington State on the Redmond reservation. Stuck in the past and rather aggressive, they are most notable for their ritual monkey dance and a language that may be related to English. They also have a fetish, a small brown object with its own characteristic spirit personality. Whether it'll influence the future, though, is another matter.

There's the spirit of sharing, which Zune encourages by letting Zunies swap music over a built-in wireless network. But all things must pass: in this case, within 72 hours. You'll have three days in which to listen to each song three times, at which point it is summoned back to the great server in the sky. Doesn't matter if you're passing your parents a recording you made of your kid being cute: Zune will banish it. Unless Microsoft is willing to let other companies join in the fun, your chances of sharing anything will be limited by the number of other Zune owners within a 50-yard radius. Perhaps that's the new digital rights management strategy — Zero Users, No Exchange.

There's the spirit of all-encompassing capacity, which in Zune's case is limited to 30GB. That may be just the first of many, but coming the day after Apple showed off products at 1,2,4,8,30 and 80GB, it looks like a one-horse town next to the city of plenty.

Then there's the spirit of time to come. The smart kids grok this: you can see them listening to radio over their wireless networks (Zune says no), picking up streaming media from blogs (Zune says no), pumping in DivX TV programmes grabbed off the torrents (Zune says no, no, no). Zune wants you to sign up to the Zune zone and do all your dealings there.

It's a platform, not a player, says the chief of the Zunes, clearly shaking his firestick at the iPod. Which doesn't explain why the Apple's got games for sale already — a subject on which the people of the Zune stay silent. You get to build stuff for platforms, but there's no developers' kit, no shining path for would-be Zune tribe members to pass initiation and take their place on the small screen.

It could all come good. There are plenty of details to come, such as price and availability, and perhaps the missing buzz will appear between now and the rumoured November launch date — although Microsoft shot its bolt with the over-successful teaser campaign for Origami. There may be magic in the Zune that sets it apart from all the other me-too MP3 players but, like the original tribe, I have my reservations.

Thursday 14/9/2006

"I went in search of news," said gorgeous pouting Tom Espiner, sporty young reporter of this parish, "but it all went badly wrong".

Tom had been dispatched to the ISSA Security Day, on the grounds that even if nothing much was announced, the world's most aristocratic IT expert, Merlin, Earl of Erroll, was going to give a speech on RIPA and the Computer Misuse Act. Merlin is the 24th such Earl, hereditary Lord High Constable of Scotland, chief of the clan of Hay, a member of the Court of Assistance of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers and quite possibly the possessor of the coolest business card in the whole of IT. It may be sad that the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers lost its legal right to adjudicate disputes on the matter of fish at the end of the 14th century, but while people like Merlin are batting for the team they will not soon disappear from the radar.

There was, as Tom suspected, no world-shattering events to report. But if you can't get a story from the Laird of the Hays talking about computer misuse, you're not really trying. The Earl got up and cleared his throat, Tom sat down and prepared to scribble some notes.

Now, Tom has reported extensively on RIPA and the CMA in the past. He is au fait with the subject. It is not unusual at the beginning of a speech for the speaker to go over common ground, to set the scene and prepare the way for the insights to come. Yet as the speech went on, Tom found not only the concepts strangely familiar but the words themselves, even some of the sentences, strongly reminiscent of material he was not so much at ease with, as author of.

The Earl had clearly done his research from impeccable sources, and thought so highly of what he found that he felt able to quote copiously and repeatedly from that river of knowledge into which he had so readily plunged. The audience was agog.

Tom had somewhat mixed emotions. "It's very flattering," he confessed to the Diary afterwards, "but I can't really write up my own words, even if they are ennobled."

As other members of the team observed, the Right Hon is thoroughly up to date with technology and able to function as his own text-to-speech converter. And it can only be a matter of time before Tom Espiner gets the call to ermine himself and becomes the Baron of Kingston and All The Realms of the South, for services to the gentry. All the fish he can eat, too, I'll be bound.

Friday 15/9/2006

It's early. It's Friday morning. Microsoft wants to tell us about Vista and Office 2007, and the company has turned up mob-handed to show us the latest.

The details of the software can wait for another day — as if the darn stuff isn't being religiously over-reported already — but the meeting is fun for other reasons. It used to be the case that you were getting old when the policemen started to look young. Now, Father Time makes his presence felt by sending a Microsoftie who looks like the lead singer from Kaiser Ferdinand or whoever it is the kids currently cut their rugs to these days. He's even got a rawk-n-roll name, Darren 'Strangely' Strange, and from hints we gather during the presentation he may also go by the name Office Rocker (geddit?).Whether he's quite this Strange, we do not know.

We learn other details of life inside Microsoft. Internal pre-beta releases of software are called Dogfood — after the unlovely marketing phrase "eat your own dogfood", meaning to use the stuff you're foisting on others. "I've had nothing but dogfood for years," said Strangely Strange. "I've forgotten what real food tastes like." If you start to use Vista for any length of time, "you start to hate XP" apparently, and OpenOffice is best considered as an alternative to Microsoft Works "because it's only fair to compare stuff at the same sort of price point".

They're also still having problems with names. PowerPoint in Office 2007 has sprouted yet more features — one of which is some sort of wizard to help pick the bling, called SmartArt. We did suggest that nobody loves a SmartArt, but the chances of anyone being able to explain that to Redmond probably approaches zero, in the same way that Microsoft still seems gloriously unaware of the alternative possibilities of calling its support system OneCare.

We may have identified the manager of the British OneCare, should the service make its way across the channel. Stand up and give a big hand to Jason Landridge, Microsoft's Mr Mobile. He was at Palm's launch of its new Treo this week in London, and lost no time in showing how its Windows Mobile magic connected up to Exchange for push email. In front of an audience of hundreds, he synced up and sent himself an email that laid bare his passion for all to see.

It said "I love my Palm!".

Thank you, Jason.

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