The sun is shining as the train winds its way along the coastline from Beaulieu to Cannes, and as the pines, sea and rugged cliffs unfold it's possible to imagine that one is a minor aristocrat on the Grand Tour. Until you realise that the train has now filled with briefcase-toting execs all talking about WiMax.
At this point, I should declare an interest. I was flown out, fed and housed by HP, in exchange for which I hung out with some of their executives and attended a couple of events. In general this sort of thing works out well -- the HP execs had some interesting things to say and we get to cover more stuff than we could otherwise. But sometimes things go a little awry, especially if something out of anyone's control gets in the way. Let's say, purely hypothetically, that you've got some fab new product to announce – a phone, perhaps -- but one of your partners – the operating system guys, for example -- gets cold feet. Suddenly, you might have a load of journalists turning up for a big meeting and nothing much to say.
I don't know if that's what happened in this case, but it felt like it. The European journo contingent was waiting for a round table to start -- a generally pointless exercise in which one or two company bods discuss things with six or seven journos: the suits aren't going to say anything shocking and you're not going to get anything exclusive, so we tend to spice things up by hunting in packs.
However, this round table was excitingly different. It was a speech by the CTO of a South Korean telco, ostensibly about how HP had helped it do wonderful things with mobile services. However, it turned into a long talk about how clever the telco was and how, thanks to the unique conditions of the South Korean market, 3G and other new services were taking off far faster than in Europe or America. There was a certain restlessness in the ranks of the European journalists as they pondered how to turn this into a story that their European readers -- and, much more importantly, their European editors -- might want to read.
At the end, there was the opportunity for a couple of questions. "What is the relevance of this to the European market?" asked a Dutch chap.
"Ah, yes," said the exec. "Korea and Europe are very different markets. It would be most unsafe to draw parallels. There is no relevance for Europe." There was a sound as of a hundred laptops being closed simultaneously; we made our excuses and left.
The very best bit of 3GSM is meeting people you haven't seen in ages. By dint of walking a hundred yards past the Palais des Festivals, I found out that a group of old Sinclair Research techies are now ensconced in California designing iPod internals, how one mobile phone company had had to change the code-name for a flagship product because the engineers couldn't say it without laughing, and how many of my former colleagues have made much more money than I ever will.
I also found out that some things don't change. By one of the entrances to the main conference hall, a small booth advertised "UK Technology Today". It had a couple of charming bag-handing-outers and a bald chap in a suit. Yes, it was Our Government supporting the Brave Boys of British Technology. Excellent! "What's going on?" I asked. "Can you tell me which UK exhibitors have new products? Press releases?" He looked at my badge and grimaced. "You're the press?" I assured him I wasn't all of it, no. "Well... we are having a drinks reception... but you're far better off going to the stands and asking them all yourself. Here's a list. No, we don't know what they're doing.." There was fear, mistrust and discomfort behind those round glasses. The list was proffered in much the same way as one might proffer a rolled-up newspaper to a wasp: I took it, the hint and to my heels.
The Scottish equivalent stand had whisky. I know who won that particular battle for hearts and minds.