Rupert Goodwins' Diary

The BBC gets too pally with Bill, a European feels a bit of a CAD, and O2 wants to dob you in to the bayleaves
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Monday 2/10/2006

Scarcely have my feet touched the ground on return from IDF in San Francisco — my diary from then will be with you next week, time travel fans — than I'm whisked off to Glasgow for a spot of radio presenter training. My trainer, an engaging, energetic chap with history at Radio 4, turns out to be thoroughly geeky at heart, and we spend some time talking about Microsoft.

It turns out that he, like almost everyone else I meet, hasn't heard of the BBC Microsoft tie-up. It's true that director general Mark Thompson has been busy appeasing the old guard among the content providers — after Radio 3's enormously successful experiment in making all Beethoven's symphonies available for download, Thompson took every chance to tell the music industry that no such nonsense would happen again. Due to popular demand, this service has been withdrawn forever.

Now he's in bed with Bill. And Bill is stroking Mark's public service area with delights such as: "Microsoft's strength is in driving digital innovation, and our vision is to open up rich, new consumer experiences that allow people to enjoy digital content anytime, anywhere and on any device. This vision fits squarely with the BBC's charter to lead the industry in delivering content that is compelling and accessible."

I must say I'm delighted to read that Microsoft has such catholic ambitions, and I look forward to seeing how they'll help deliver digital content to my Ubuntu media centre, my iPod and my Nokia mobile phone.

To be fair, a "non-exclusive memorandum of understanding" concerning things such asWeb 2.0 is about as content-free a corporate object as industry event canapes — the size and speed of disappearance of which has religiously followed Moore's Law for the past 10 years. I also believe that European law governing state provision of services and the BBC's own Charter will prove formidable obstacles in the way of any company — and the BBC is talking to a few — trying to sew up the Digibeeb as a fiefdom of their own.

Which is not to say they won't try. Anything that gets in the way of the public service part of public service broadcasting is to be bitterly resisted, and we shouldn't look for help among the great and the good. I'll be keeping a close eye on this: you should, too.


Tuesday 3/10/2006

Home again, and my first chance to test out a piece of technology picked up Stateside. To bolster my collection of mildly weird radio hardware, I bought a pair of GMRS/FRS walkie-talkies for $50 at a Radio Shack — illegal to use but not to own in the UK, they highlight an ongoing problem with wireless standards.

GMRS and FRS are two CB-like bands unique to the US and Canada. They're just like any other two-way low power UHF radio system; in Europe — and increasingly the rest of the world, excluding America — we have something called PMR446. In all, however, there are around 10 such systems, each similar enough to each other to share hardware but dissimilar enough to require slightly different control software in the embedded processors that run the walkie-talkies.

As a result, the Far Eastern production lines that make these things churn out millions of identical units that can run on any standard, programming them to the restrictions of each market before shipping. But the darn things still all look the same and act the same: if you're not a radio regulator, you can't tell the difference, nor would you care.

But if you are — ah, you've got problems. These radios I've bought, for example, have 22 channels. The bottom bunch are in a government allocation in the UK for fire brigade and "inter-service liason", the middle lot are used by local radio stations for talkback from outside broadcasting, and the very top seem to be used by referees at football matches to talk to their linesmen. These are lightly scrambled to prevent the punters earwigging — but the walkie-talkies I have include exactly that form of scrambling.

Clearly, a mischief-maker with evil intent and one of these radios could have a lot of fun. There's no point in trying to ban their import; even if you succeed, it takes a few minutes on the Internet to find out how they're programmed and to switch bands on a unit that's been legally bought and certified for domestic use. (Incidentally, that's what I'm going to do with my pair, moving them into a nearby amateur radio band where I'm fully licensed to radiate at will.)

The solution — as with all radio, these days — is to settle on one band, one set of standards to do one job worldwide. It's worked with 802.11: it hasn't worked with 3G, and is only barely hanging together with WiMax. Regulators who don't take a truly global outlook will run the risk of losing control of their bands — it's happened in the past, when cheap CBs from the US overran the best efforts of the European regulators to keep them out, and that was before the Internet made buying a product from anywhere in the world somewhat easier than popping into Dixons. Do we see that kind of thinking with Ofcom and its pals around the world? Barely. There'll be trouble.

Incidentally, although it's normally illegal to listen to any of the frequencies my new radios cover, I have had a poke around, purely to make sure none of my other transmitters are interfering (a condition of my amateur radio licence, you understand). The inhabitants of the band appear to be Irish builders controlling cranes. It may be too late...

Wednesday 4/10/2006

The Airbus A380 misery continues to spread, with Rolls-Royce now shutting down the Trent 900 engine production plant for a year. The A380 story is one of frustration all round; it flies fine and is progressing with reasonable dispatch through the various regulatory and approval processes: it's just that Airbus can't make the thing.

Wiring is the problem: the 300 miles of cable in each plane won't fit properly, in part because of the great variation between units — every airline can order customised in-flight entertainment systems — but mostly because the engineering centre in Hamburg is using different software from that at company HQ in Toulouse. As a result, changes made in one place haven't been properly assimilated at the other.

The reasons for this disastrous mismatch are hinted at in a piece from Bloomberg. The two centres are run by two different partners in the Airbus consortium and while the company has been trying very hard to get everyone unified, in this case there was considerable resistance from the engineers. That's because of inertia: once you've spent 10 years getting skilled at one particular software tool and you're doing a good job with it, you're going to react very badly to being told you have to change, go through retraining and spend at least a year getting up to speed, all because someone from another country says you must.

You know what engineers are like. You can imagine the rancour, especially in an European context where, nearly 50 years after the Treaty of Rome was signed, considerable national rivalry still pervades the Union. It must have seemed like the simplest thing all round at the time to accept the suppliers' assurances that sure, the data would be interchangeable instead of issuing a hard-line edict. As a result, Airbus is in a huge and possibly even fatal mess while Boeing is happily reclaiming its status as global leader in aviation.

I've seen some cross-country European ventures, occasionally from the inside, and I'm increasingly of the opinion that messing around in some sort of quantum state of indeterminate cohesion is deadly to the enterprise. Either everyone involved is a separate company, and deals with the partners with nearly the same remove as other clients and customers, or there's one company with a single approach and a pretty dictatorial management. Both approaches have their pitfalls, but nowhere near as nasty as those that come from spending enormous amounts of effort trying to maintain a state of internal friction.

That, I'm afraid, will never fly.


Thursday 5/10/2006

The big question about DRM is not whether it'll lock us into a grey, corporate future where every speck of creative freedom is crushed beneath a leaden mass of leech-like bureaucracy (memo to self: can one make leeches from lead?). Rather, it's whether that self-same heavy metal management will poison the body corporate of those who seek to impose it.

Let's look at the cheerleader for centrally controlled computing, our friends from the American north-west. In the same week Microsoft has announced that Vista will shut itself down if not authorised by HQ, it admitted to problems in its Windows Genuine Advantage program already deployed for XP. Due to "an issue on the Microsoft server side", some perfectly valid installations were failing their test for legality. There's a workaround, but it isn't pretty.

That information was published on a Microsoft hosted blog, which has a section for Windows Genuine Advantage problems, and one for benefits. At the time of writing, one of these sections has 2,347 threads and one just 178 — and I genuinely believe you'll be able to guess which has what. I've never found anyone outside Microsoft with a good thing to say about WGA, which just goes to show that there are limits to the Orwellian malleability of the English language, even in the hands of experts.

This perception of over-encumbered software that punishes the good while ignoring the scofflaws is just getting stronger — and it does nothing to persuade people who've made the jump elsewhere that they've done the wrong thing. My experience with Linux has not been one of unalloyed joy; in some ways, it's been a step back to some of the sins of Windows 9X in terms of obscure incompatibilities and badly-documented tweakage. In others, especially in reliability, speed and flexibility, Linux is up there with the best.

But the problems I've had to solve have been easier to fix due to the open nature of the software: they have been fixed — or, where they can't be fixed, definitively identified and avoided — and nothing has stayed hidden away. In particular, there are no extra layers of complexity added purely to prevent things happening, no misbehaving remote database that will turn my computer off, and my freedom to try out different approaches is in no way limited by my ability to keep paying out until I find something that works. That's a good feeling.

And it's that feeling — visceral though it is — of being back in charge, of having the power that goes with the responsibility of keeping my computers working well, that is the strongest agent of addiction. I don't think Linux is ready to kick Windows off the desktop, but the way things are going it may become the better option: the Windows Genuine Advantage may yet lie with the penguin.


Friday 6/10/2006

And finally, let us go into the weekend celebrating the fall of one little fortress of foolishness, the T-Mobile ban on instant messaging and voice over IP (VoIP). Admittedly you have to pay extra for VoIP, but anyone can use IM. Just as well, as T-Mobile has been shipping MS Messenger on its Windows Mobile smartphones for a while: it's one thing to have an unreasonable ban on a service, quite another to then implicitly promote its use.

Even as one nonsensical nut disappears down the gullet of the squirrel of sanity, you can rely on the mobile operators to redress the balance by creating even more madness. From Informa's Week in Wireless email comes the following scary report:

"O2 [has] changed its terms of service to let itself share 'the date, duration, time and cost of such communications and the location of your mobile phone' with…. whoever the hell it likes, but specifically 'other telecommunications providers, credit companies and debt collectors'."

This is fear-inducing stuff indeed. I, and I imagine most people, know that the mobile phone operators know full well where we are at any time. Sometimes, they can even make the numbers add up to work out how much we owe them. But the idea that they would share this information with anyone not bearing a court warrant is unthinkable. In particular, some of the more muscular debt collectors are certainly capable of putting more of an emphasis on frightening the punters than they do on checking the validity of the debt they're chasing, and the ability to track people down by their mobile phones opens up a whole new area of aggravated stalking opportunities.

It strikes me that this sort of unilateral change of conditions of service goes beyond anything that can be considered reasonable. Not being an O2 customer — and by jove, highly unlikely to become one at this rate — I don't have the opportunity of telling them that I do not accept that change and if they want to impose it I'll be off now, thanks very much. You may be a customer. You might like to ask them what they're up to, and to stop it now.

That's if you don't want your location to be revealed to anyone O2 feels can benefit from the information. Perhaps you're feeling a bit lonely and fancy the company. But if you do give it a go, let me know: I'd like to think that this is the sort of barminess that can be rolled back if enough people make the right sort of noise.

Otherwise, they'll all be at it. And that's not a game I want to play.


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