Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Monday 15/11/1999Biometrics! Better get interested in them, 'cos they're very interested in you.

Monday 15/11/1999

Biometrics! Better get interested in them, 'cos they're very interested in you. Word from Comdex is that the computers have got good enough to recognise us from aspects of our bodies quickly, cheaply and, most important of all, accurately. The Fingerprint Mouse is particularly in favour: you sit down at your desk, rest the tip of your finger in a glass well on top of the rodent, and bang. You're in. Or you're not in. Actually, I've played with these devices and they work remarkably well.

With this sort of idea, you won't need to remember a password. In fact, as it gets more commonplace, expect it to replace the signature and proof-of-ID systems that currently plague our lives. Why do you need a credit card if you can touch the till or telephone and tell it exactly who you are while authorising it to make the payment? Either we'll get finger readers in everything or -- more likely -- we'll have one reader we carry with us that talks to whatever system we're using via Bluetooth or similar. It might be built into your cellphone or wristwatch or PDA or handbag or whatever: and, of course, you can always borrow someone else's.

Is it safe? It can be made so. Is it secure? Ditto. And it has to be better than plastic cards that can be lost or stolen. Expect the first to appear on your computer in the next eighteen months: once they're acceptable through familiarity, online services may even make their use a condition of access.

The only slightly worrying thing -- and I'm not sure how many of the biometric boys at Comdex have this -- is that some of these things have detectors built in to check both that the proffered digit is at body temperature and that blood is indeed flowing through it. I wouldn't think about that any more, if I were you.

Tuesday 16/11/1999

Sony! What a company, eh? CDs, minidiscs, camcorders, walkmen, Playstations, robot dogs... there can't be any other company with as good a record of hammering out new consumer niches and doing genuine high-tech research and development from the ground up. It's got a lot to say about the future, too -- the Memory Stick, digital video, home networking... and now it's done a deal with Palm to develop new PDAs.

This is widely -- and correctly -- seen as a slap in the face for Microsoft and Windows CE. Was it that CE is still technically less than luscious, or that Microsoft's plans to develop a videogame console was seen by Sony as straining the relationship that little bit too far? Whatever, it's part of a trend. Philips and Everex have given up on their CE product line (as has Sharp, by rumour unconfirmed), and you won't see millions of Windows CE phones packing out your pockets next year. Meanwhile, Symbian's getting going, Palm may be in a bit of an evolutionary backwater but it's still stunningly successful, and if you're not worried about installed base you can buy any one of a hundred embedded operating systems that have good networking capability and won't tie you to the Microsoft Way.

And if Sony lets its best people at the PDA project, and makes sure it integrates well with everything else -- typically, Sony's weakest point after the company's peculiar ideas about marketing -- we could have a most exciting product on, as it were, our hands sometime next year or 2001.

Wednesday 17/11/1999

The Dome. Keen yet? No, me neither. But... well, it just got a little more attractive now that one of the toys on show will be a whole-body scanner. Pop into the booth and let the lasers zizzle over your bod. Then you'll get a smart card with your unique identifier on it (what's wrong with a piece of paper and a code?), from which you can download the Digital You over the Web thereafter. No mention of whether you can then send your avatar to online clothes shops for fitting -- but if you can, then I'm up for it. Anything that takes the misery and tedium out of shopping for schmutter gets a rapturous round of applause from this side of the screen.

Who knows? This e-commerce madness may yet take off.

Thursday 18/11/1999

Like weird cartoonery? I do, and thanks to that awfully nice Mr David Evnull (ex-columnist from Another Magazine About PCs. You know, the one with the caricatures of its columnists that makes them look like they're escapees from a fairground owner's fever dream), I have some recommendations for you. But some are a bit grotesque (the Squeam factor, below) and that Internet thing features large in many. You'll have to try a few of each out: it takes time to get into the spirit of such things, and they've all got a fairly high shrug-to-chortle ratio. But whatcha want, eh? Peanuts for the rest of your life?

Goats . Nicely surreal, quaintly twisted and with occasional journeys into the frankly bizarre. High beer content. Sometimes tries too hard. Squeam factor: 6/10. Net references: 7/10. Would your mother like it? No.

Waiting for Bob . Sitcom-esque, very American Slacker, good dialogue (sometimes) but not too heavy on the weirdness. Bit coy. Squeam factor:1/10 (if you can stand geeks). Net references: 8/10. Would your mother like it? Yes, if it was a Channel 4 US import.

Jim Woodring and Frank. Not a comic strip per se, no. But no excuses needed for this, my very favourite artist of the floating mind. If you have a yen for Magritte and Philip K Dick and don't mind the curious sensation of reliving forgotten dreams, come here, come here. Squeam factor: 6/10 (mostly totally harmless, but with the occasional shocker). Net references, 0/10 (although Mr Woodring did design the avatars and backgrounds for Microsoft's Comic Chat product). Would your mother like it? That depends what she was up to in the 60s.

Friday 19/11/1999

It's sometimes difficult to remember quite what cultural differences exist between the UK and continental Europe. For example, Vodafone Airtouch has decided that it really, REALLY wants Mannesmann. Mannesmann's board decided it didn't want to be bought by Voda, so Voda ups the ante and pitches the deal straight to the shareholders. Straightforward hostile bid: they're not that common and can get quite exciting, but they're all part of the game.

Not in Germany, apparently, where the workers are taking to the streets in anger. In fact, no foreign hostile bid has ever worked in that market -- and if the culture's against it, that may continue for a while. After all, if the shareholders don't want to sell -- even for silly money -- then there's nothing to be done.

It's worth remembering that, especially over here where following the Thatcher years the cultural aspects of business are almost completely overwhelmed by the balance sheet. It could be that this Darwinian approach will flatten all before it: on the other hand, if it leads to silliness like the .com bubble and other hideously unsustainable financial plays, the older, social democractic model may win out.

Either way, it doesn't seem to have much to do with mobile phones.