Column: Panic attack

Loose Wire: Read This, Then Panic

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 9 May 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

 
Ever fire up your computer, only to hear weird whirring noises from your hard drive — or nothing at all? Only to then hear another sound, as your stomach starts churning with dread — a little bit like food poisoning, or being in love, only worse. Suddenly your life starts flashing past, only this time it’s not when your brother or sister threw a box of Lego bricks at you when you were five, but when you last backed up your data to another device, and the horrible vision of what your future would look like without any data in it. It’s happened to all of us, and it’s not as bad as it sounds. Things could be worse.
 
Yeah, right, I have to say that for legal reasons. Of course it couldn’t be worse. Nine out of 10 doofuses (read incompetent computer users) never back up their data. At least that’s my experience: in fact the figure is more like half, according to surveys conducted by Iomega, a storage company. (Sure, they would say that, because they want you to buy their stuff, but I figure that’s evened out by the number of folk who lie in these kind of surveys because they don’t want to look like doofuses.) The sad reality is that we don’t really back up often enough and well enough, so that when a computer crash does come it hits us like a locomotive. So how do you avoid this?
 
Actually, it’s relatively easy. But you have to be disciplined about it. First, separate your data — document files, spreadsheets, pictures of your newborn — from your programs and create a folder on your hard drive called “Documents” or “Data” or whatever, and then subfolders according to what the data is: Letters to Mum; Letters to bank manager; Letters to bank manager’s mum; etc. With me so far?
 
Now you need somewhere to back this stuff up. Here are the options:
 
CD-ROMs: Many PCs and laptops come fitted with CD-ROM drives that allow you to create CDs. With blank CD prices so low this is not a bad choice. The only problems are that you’ll end up having a lot of CD-ROMs sitting around, most of which you’ll have been too lazy to label properly; and also that the CD-burning process is pretty unforgiving — if you use your computer while the CD is being created, chances are the resulting CD will be unusable.
 
On-line drives: If you have a fast Internet connection you can save data at a secure Web site like X Drive (www.xdrive.com) for a reasonable fee. If you are a Mac user, there is free storage with the Apple Web site’s iDisk service (www.apple.com/idisk). This is good if you’re on the move a lot, or are afraid a burglar is going to steal all your back-ups, or you live in an earthquake/forest fire/flooding zone. No point in backing everything up, carefully stashing it in a drawer and then finding your house and drawer have burned down, been horizontally rearranged or moved a few blocks down the canyon.
 
I’d put my money on an external drive: These are hard drives just like the one inside your computer but, you guessed it, they’re outside. With prices tumbling, you can now pick up a 20 gigabyte drive that runs off the USB slot on your computer for $200 or less. About the size of a TV remote, they’re easy to stash, and they’re fast. Iomega have just launched a very sleek-looking range of drives that use USB version 2.0, which should make them even faster.
 
Now all you need is to do the actual back-up. For this I would recommend Second Copy from Centered Systems ($30 from www.centered.com), which is extraordinarily easy to use, or the slightly more complicated Network File Monitor from AAR Software (a Lite version is $20 from www.aarsoftware.com). Work out how often you want your data backed up (no harm in doing it every day if you’re the nervous type) and then let the software run — best when you’re asleep or at the gym, since it always hogs resources. If you’re really nervous, try Iomega’s QuikSync (www.iomega.com), which will monitor the files you’re using and back them up every few minutes: This definitely slows things down, so it’s advisable only for the certifiably paranoid. No, of course I don’t use it myself.
 
Hang on a minute, what was that noise?

Loose Wire: Don’t Bite the

Loose Wire: Don’t Bite the Hand That Pays

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 18 April 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

I get hot under the collar over a lot of things, especially being forced to write this column in the sweltering tropical heat of Bali, when I could be in a cool, air-conditioned office cubicle. But one thing riles me in particular: the efforts of music, movie and software majors to restrict usage of their products because of pirating. How much sillier can things get?

It’s now possible to download whole movies off the Internet, milliseconds after they’re released (and often before). The movie industry is feeling the heat that software manufacturers have been feeling for years — the same heat that the music industry felt, too, during the brief reign of Napster’s file-sharing software.

In nearly all cases, the industry reaction has been to punish the very people it should be trying to win over: the paying customer. This is usually done by building in limitations on use of their product. In the case of DVD movies, the world is divided into zones — a DVD bought in one zone cannot (theoretically) be played in another.

Some music CDs now often have special keys or codes built in which prevent easy or exact duplication. Microsoft has been trying out ways of forcing people to register their software; if they don’t, they find the software stops working after a few weeks. All these efforts are misguided and alienate users, who feel they’ve stumped up the cash and can do what they like with their purchase, short of using it as a lethal weapon.

To find a solution that works, we need to acknowledge a few basic principles. First, piracy is no longer a backstreet occupation, if it ever was. A few metres from where I’m writing this in Bali you can buy the latest version of Microsoft Office for a fraction of its original price. Want a DVD of a new movie like Angel Eyes or Ocean’s Eleven? Join the queue in Jakarta’s main expat supermarket and you can snap them up for about $6 each, or a quarter of the price of the imported original.

The lesson from this: It doesn’t pay to look at the problem too moralistically, or legalistically. If we do, we’ve got to get tough on half the world, which spends its time making fake Rolexes, imitation Gucci bags, sports shirts and the like, and the other half, many of whom I can see from my vantage point at the hotel bar, who spend their holidays in the tropics buying them up.

Thirdly, technology is not the answer. Industry boffins can dream up new ways of restricting copying but the copiers will always be one step ahead. I realized that MP3s were no longer the province of nerdy types when I spotted a small store in an Indonesian village selling MP3 collections of the likes of Sting and Britney Spears alongside single sachets of shampoo. The lesson: Technology finds a way round every obstacle placed in its way. For users blighted by DVD-zoning, many electronics shops will happily rejig the software in the DVD player to enable any DVD to play regardless of where it came from.

In my view the answers are simple. Manufacturers should reward the genuine user. Don’t just shove a disc in a plastic box and shrink-wrap it: spend some time and effort compiling interesting sleeve notes. Offer DVD buyers a once-only code to download the sound track in MP3 form free. Enable those who register to buy a boxed set of autographed DVDs by the same director. Some of this happens at the moment, but it’s not enough.

Adopt brave measures: Reduce prices, which have stayed too high (particularly CD prices), and stop annoying the rest of us with stupid restrictions on usage. Learn from companies that do things well, like Qualcomm, whose excellent e-mail program Eudora comes in a free version. This is funded by ads, which appear in a tasteful, but visible, format (and are accompanied by a polite but firm warning should you arrange your other programs to cover up the ads).

DVD-manufacturers or CD-makers could sell cheaper versions of their products interspersed with commercials: Pay more and you can get one without the ads. Let’s face it, some people are never going to pay top dollar for these products, so stop worrying about them and encouraging us law-abiding folk to buy more. Now I’m off to buy a real Rolex. No, really.

Column: Klips

Loose Wire: When Push Comes to Shove

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 25 April 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

I think I can safely say it, though others have been saying it for years: Push is dead. In which case I’d like to be the first to say: Long live push.

For those of you who weren’t following closely, push was much hyped in the mid-1990s when computers were first being hooked up to the Internet in a big way. The idea was simple enough: instead of users going to Web sites to get information — pull — the information could be sent — pushed — to the user. You could then sit back and watch it all — cricket scores, share prices, headlines — scroll across your screen. For the corporate world it was an opportunity to also push ads, special offers and branding.

So what went wrong? First out of the starting gate, PointCast earned lasting opprobrium because its software hogged computer and Internet resources. PointCast retired hurt, and was eventually bought by EntryPoint in 1999, which a year later merged with Internet Financial Network Inc. to form InfoGate. This stopped offering its free ticker in mid-April, and now can only be found in the technology behind the subscription-based USA Today NewsTracker ($40 a year from newstracker.usatoday.com), which somewhat fittingly looks like the PointCast of old.

Actually, it’s not push that is dead. It’s the gravity-defying business models and catch-all products that don’t offer anything other people can’t offer for free. InfoGate fell by the wayside because it didn’t make any money. USA Today’s NewsTracker won’t, in my view, attract users because you can get the same thing free elsewhere — try the BBC’s excellent Newsline ticker (www.bbc.co.uk/newsline).

Why then has yet another scrolling-ticker business thrown open its doors to the public in the same week as InfoGate closed them? Enter KlipFolio from Serence, a small Windows program that at first blush is not much different. The scrolling is familiar; the clicking on a headline to see the full story is the same. The only visible change is that each Klip contains information from one source only, so instead of one big scrolling ticker with everything in it, from CNN to your local rag, Klips are small and independent.

Below stairs, it’s very different: a content-service provider (what you and I would call a Web site, whether it’s a magazine, news service, an auction site or whatever) adds some lines of Klip computer code so that every time they add some data to their Web site (a news story, an updated stock price, a new item for sale) that data is added to the Klip’s scrolling headlines.

Users, meanwhile, select which Klips they want to view on their screen, which will then update in real time with the new story, price or item for sale. Simple. Serence operates merely as the provider of technology to the content-service providers. For the user, the Klip software is free (www.Klipfolio.com), though Serence says some providers may charge for content in the future.

So what’s so different about this? Well, first off the software looks and works beautifully. Secondly, the back end is simple enough for content-service providers to be able to incorporate it without any extra computers, technicians or PhDs. This means that Serence is just an intermediary; it just provides a site where users can find what sources are available, and it licenses the software to the providers.

Where I believe Klips might really take off, however, is in delivering more specialized content. Sure, we can monitor Web sites, get stuff by e-mail, even have stock prices sent to our mobile phone, but imagine having a Klip that monitors, say, the prices of fast-moving items on an on-line auction site, or jobs in a particular industry.

What’s more, Serence has priced the product so that even individuals who produce specialist newsletters can jump aboard for about $100 a month. Indeed, as Blogs — Web sites that collate niche news and analysis — become more organized, Klips may emerge as a great way for individuals to provide a valuable real-time service which grateful users may pay for.

If that happens, it may well mark the coming of age of push: an information-delivery service that gives me stuff I need, doesn’t take up space and doesn’t go out of business.

Loose Wire: The State We

Loose Wire: The State We Could Be in

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 28 March 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

Voting in your underwear? Sounds an appealing proposition: the chance to exercise your constitutionally protected right without actually having to leave your home. You could be watching Frasier while working out which candidate you want to mess things up for you for the next three/four/25 years, based on criteria such as which one most closely resembles a Teletubby/Frasier’s brother Niles/your Aunt Maudlin.

Yes, the lure of Internet voting is coming around again. In May, soccer enthusiasts will be able to vote for their favourite players in the World Cup via a joint South Korean and Japanese project (mvp.worldcup2002.or.kr; the site is not fully functioning yet). This is just an on-line poll, of course, and doesn’t add much to the mix except to try to introduce a new social group (soccer fans) to the concept of on-line voting. Elsewhere, however, on-line voting is already kicking in: Some towns in Britain are undertaking pilot projects allowing voters to choose their local councillors via the Internet, or even via SMS, in borough elections in May.

I don’t want to be a killjoy, but this kind of thing gives me the heebie-jeebies. The arguments in favour of on-line voting make sense — faster counting, less human error, attracting younger, hipper voters with handphones and Internet connections in their hatbands, higher turnouts, you can vote in your underpants, etc., etc. — until you actually think about it. Computers, we’ve learned since we plugged one PC into another, are notoriously insecure. Viruses are now so sophisticated and prevalent that many security consultants advise their clients to update their anti-virus software every day. What are the chances of a voting system not being a juicy target for people writing these nasty little vermin programs?

Another argument wheeled out in favour of Internet voting is this: The Web is now managing billions of dollars of transactions successfully, so why can’t it handle voting? There’s a simple answer to this, as security consultant Bruce Schneier of Counterpane Internet Security (www.counterpane.com) explains: The whole point of voting is that it’s supposed to be anonymous, whereas any financial transaction has attached to it details of payee, recipient and other important data. This makes it much, much harder to protect any voting system from fraud, much harder to detect any fraud and much harder to identify the guy conducting the fraud. What’s more, if there was evidence of fraud, what exactly do you do in an on-line vote? Revote? Reconduct part of the vote? Chances are that faith in the overall ballot has been seriously, if not fatally, undermined.

Some of these problems could be done away with via ATM-style machines that print out a record of the vote. That could then be used in any recount. But it’s still not enough: As on-line voting expert Rebecca Mercuri points out, there is no fully electronic system that can allow the voter to verify that the ballot cast exactly matches the vote he just made. Some nasty person could write code that makes the vote on the screen of a computer or ATM-machine printout different from that recorded. This may all sound slightly wacky to people living in fully functioning democracies. But (political point coming up, cover your eyes if you prefer) democracies can be bent to politicians’ wills, and one country’s voting system may be more robust than another’s.

Scary stuff. Florida may seem a long way away now, but the lesson from that particular episode must be that any kind of voting system that isn’t simple and confidence-inspiring gives everyone stomach ulcers. The charming notion that the more automation you allow into a system, the more error-free and tamper-proof it becomes, is deeply misguided. The more electronics and automation you allow into the system, the less of a role election monitors can play.

Internet voting, or something like it, may well be the future. I’d like to see it wheeled out for less mission-critical issues, like polling for whether to introduce traffic-calming measures in the town centre, or compulsory kneecapping for spitters, say. But so long as computers remain fragile, untamed beasts that we don’t quite understand, I’d counsel against subjecting democracy to their whim. Even if I am in my underpants.

Loose Wire — I Seek

Loose Wire — I Seek Mum, Nick and Sally

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 14 March 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

Communication is a funny thing. Living in Southeast Asia in the 1980s I’d type out letters in the enveloping heat, making carbon copies — confident the original would never arrive — and fight my way to the post office past beggars, pickpockets and expat financial-services salesmen, just to stay in touch. Now I have a handphone, e-mail and fax and I can barely talk my thumbs into tapping out a text message home once in a while. It may just be me, but I suspect the harder it is to stay in touch, the better we are at it.

One phenomenon that has bucked this trend is Internet messaging. ICQ was revolutionary when it first popped up in 1996 via an Israeli company called Mirabilis. The first time I used it to send a message to my friend Jim across the South China Sea was mind-blowing.

Now ICQ has been snapped up by AOL and boasts some 127 million users — a sign that people seem to want to stay in touch. For those of us with friends and family in different time zones, such programs are a good way to exchange casual greetings when our on-line sessions happen to coincide.

That said, there’s a downside and it must be fixed before messaging really catches on. While ICQ is by far the most popular chat program or messaging client, Microsoft also has its own, as do AOL and Yahoo. The problem is whether or not to allow users on one service to interact with users on another. So far things haven’t worked out; AOL has blocked most attempts at hooking up to their users, arguing they don’t want any Tom, Dick or Harry hacking into their computers.

Fair point, but in reality the issue is money: These programs spread like wildfire because they were free, and so far no one’s making any money. ICQ has started discreetly adding small adverts but it’s not going to make a dent in the cost of hosting tens of millions of chatty messaging folk. Until chat becomes like your mobile-phone service — where you can be assured of reaching someone, whatever network they’re on — it’s going to be a gimmick. Loading a different program for each service gets messy.

But this is where it gets interesting. Some enterprising dudes have started offering software that handles more than one service, meaning that if you have friends with Yahoo, Microsoft and ICQ accounts, for example, you can chat with them via one program. The best of these is Trillian (www.trillian.cc), written by Kevin Kurtz and Scott Werndorfer and already boasting 2 million copies.

As you can imagine, the giants aren’t happy about two whippersnappers piggybacking on all their hard work. The logos of Microsoft’s MSN, AOL and Yahoo are reduced to acne-like splodges inside Trillian’s window and are, to all intents and purposes, irrelevant to users, who are just happy to be able to connect with their chums on other services.

AOL has already made its feelings known by attempting to shut out Trillian, who have spent much of the past few weeks trying to get back in.

Trillian may be small fry, but they’ve opened the door. AT&T launched a new version of their IM Anywhere program in February that connects to all the other services except ICQ. Fending off two guys in a bedsit may be one thing for AOL, but AT&T may be a tougher proposition.

Where is this going to take us? I’d like to see basic text messages to all services offered as a standard, with users deciding which program they use to pull all their contacts together. PalTalk, a small start-up that also connects to AOL, has found there’s money in extra services like voice, video and professional chat groups.

For most, text chat is just a great way of staying in touch with people across the street or planet. Most don’t care which program does it, and aren’t crazy about all the extra hoopla companies try to cram in to lure folk aboard.

So just give us simple Internet messaging for free, and charge for premium services like security, messaging between handphones and Internet, or on-line collaboration for professional use. Who knows? I might even persuade my mum to sign up: It beats picking up a phone.

Loose Wire: Excuse Me, My

Loose Wire: Excuse Me, My Ego’s Ringing

[ this appeared in FEER, 01/31/2002]

Few of us stop to think just how revolutionary the mobile phone is. It enables us to be always on call and always in touch with those important to us, it frees us from the confines of office and home, but perhaps most importantly it gives us something to fiddle with during awkward moments at meetings, parties, funerals, etc. And the revolution is only just beginning.

Mobile phones have redefined the concept of personal space, of what is meant by communication, as well as allowing us to send messages to each other — mostly consisting of such vital data as smiley icons, jokes and “you owe me rent.”

Mobile phones, in short, have altered the way we behave. The phone has become an extension of our bodies, and we feel lost without it. It’s the first thing we park on the table at restaurants, bars, desks, pulpits, etc. As cultural observer Sadie Plant, in her entertaining treatise On The Mobile, has observed, whether we have one, how we use it, how many names we have stored in its memory, all define what kind of person we are, indeed, whether we are anybody at all.

As mobile phones change us, so in turn we feel compelled to ensure they say as many good things about us as possible, short of hanging a placard around one’s neck saying “really nice guy, cool but not aloof, interesting job but even more interesting hobbies involving water, rocks and rugged footwear.” We buy the latest model and parade it until another model comes along, after which we sheepishly stuff it in our pocket. I was mortified when my Nokia Communicator, a bulky but state-of-the-art number incorporating keyboard, big screen, tumble-dryer, etc., was mistaken for one of those brick-sized monstrosities of yore.

Smaller phones don’t necessarily mean less intrusive: In fact the fancier the phone is, the smaller it is, which means the more prominent it should be. To assist visibility, buy a snap-on cover sporting designs from Snoopy-esque to racing cars. The next stage, of course, will be for the phones to actually be shaped like a Disney character or a packet of cigarettes, which might well mark the end of civilization as we know it. In the meantime, Nokia this month unveiled a subsidiary called Vertu to produce handphones encrusted in precious gems and sporting luxurious metal finishes. Sadly, tackiness and handphones seem a good fit.

As if that wasn’t enough, ring tones show no sign of getting tasteful. A new generation of palm-sized devices which double as phones will use ordinary sound files as ring tones. In the future, expect to hear more melodious stuff or, more ominously, recorded voices of Hollywood characters uttering personalized messages along the lines of: “Sebastian, you have a call from your mother.”

Of course, handphones have wrought broader change. The overthrow of Philippine President Joseph Estrada is an oft-cited example of the broadcasting power of short messaging, or SMS, but protests have been coordinated by mobile phone for much longer. Many middle-class students involved in the anti-military uprising in Thailand in 1992 had the bulky units of the day stuffed into their jeans, which must have been painful when their soldier captors forced them to crouch or crawl.

But more importantly, it’s no longer a revolution confined to the elite. In poverty-stricken Indonesia, for example, mobile phones will out-number land lines this year. Transvestite prostitutes wandering the streets near where I live all seem to be sporting the latest silver-plated Nokia, and when the shoeless busker who accosts your car at a junction pauses in his rendering of “Ole Ole Ole” to answer his Siemens you know the mobile phone has broken out of its traditional socioeconomic limits. This is no bad thing. The more of us have these dang things, the quicker we can agree on how they are used and, most importantly, what to do to people who use overly glitzy phones with annoying ring tones. Make them eat the precious gems, I say.

(Copyright (c) 2002, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

Loose Wire: Here’s Where The

Loose Wire: Here’s Where The Party Is

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 7 February 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

The Internet is like a teenage party: lots of groping around in the dark hoping to bump into something worth telling your friends about later. And like a teenage party, chances are you’ll be hanging around sipping warm Coke with the complexion-challenged in the kitchen, unaware that all the action is taking place in the basement.

Weblogs may be the answer to this finding-the-action problem. Weblogs are Web pages built by real people, blessedly free of corporate-speak and ubiquitous images of tall, shiny skyscrapers, smiley people gazing intelligently into laptops, or besuited business types shaking hands.

Weblogs are where the real action is. They are the creation of individuals, usually musings on national, local or personal events, links to interesting articles, a few lines of comment or discussion collected and presented by one person. Weblogs are a milestone in the short history of the Internet.

They first appeared in 1997, according to Rebecca Blood in her excellent history of the Weblog form’s development (www.rebeccablood.net/essays/weblog_history.html). By early 1999 it was shortened to “blog.” Blogs took off with the advent of Web-based programs to set up and maintain sites without fiddling around with lots of formatting. The most popular of these is Blogger (www.blogger.com) which maintains 350,000 blogs, according to Evan Williams, chief executive of Blogger and something of a legend in the blogging community.

Although the media hype has faded, blogs show no sign of going away. Of those 350,000 blogs, 20% were published in the last month. Williams says new users are signing up at an average of 1,300 a day.

For The People, By The People

It’s not hard to see why. Blogs are probably unique in that they allow ordinary people to put things on the Net easily, and yet to feel that the space in some way reflects and belongs to them. “There are other things that can work on the Web — it’s a highly flexible medium, obviously — but the blog format is one of the ‘natural’ formats for Web publishing, and this is a big reason it’s taking off,” says Williams. Given that the original promise of the Web as a levelling medium — as open to ordinary folk as to big press barons — has faded in recent years, this is good news.

I won’t recommend any specific blogs, since it’s a personal thing, but here are some places to start: Linkwatcher (www.linkwatcher.com), a kind of real-time monitor of selected blogs; Weblog Review, where blogs are reviewed by other bloggers (www.theweblogreview.com); or the more earthy BlogHop (www.bloghop.com) which stores some 8,779 blogs, most of them deeply opinionated.

Part of a blog’s charm is simplicity. In most cases it’s just text, simply but elegantly laid out. Pages are quick to load. The content is concise and measured. The more you read a blog you like, the more inclined you are to trust the author’s choice and follow the links offered. And, of course, it’s free.

There are, of course, downsides. The sheer plethora of blogs makes finding one you like difficult. Indexes of blogs are few and far between and most don’t give much idea of what lies therein, beyond a usually short and obscure title. And there’s a lot of rubbish out there — overly introspective bleatings of the terminally unhappy, irrational whingings — as well as blogs that don’t get updated and just take up Web space.

So where is it going? I’d like to think that blogs do what the much vaunted portal of the dotcom boom failed to do: collate, filter and present information from other sources, alongside comment. Bloggers — those that blog — will be respected as folk who aren’t journalists, or experts in their field, but have sufficient knowledge and experience to serve as informal guides to the rest of us hunting for stuff on the World Wide Web.

There’s not much money in this, though doubtless they’re likely to upset the media barons who realize that their carefully presented, graphics-strewn home pages are being bypassed by blog-surfers stopping by only long enough to grab one article. But that may be the future: The editor that determines the content of our daily read may not be a salaried Webmaster or a war-weathered newspaper editor, but a bleary-eyed blogger in his undershirt willing to put in the surfing time on our behalf.

Who knows? We may even be willing to pay to read their blogs. As long as there are no grinning, laptop-carrying hand-shakers in sight.

Loose Wire: Actually Bill, No,

Loose Wire: Actually Bill, No, I Can’t
By Jeremy Wagstaff

12/13/2001 Far Eastern Economic Review (Copyright (c) 2001, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

I’m frankly flabbergasted that the Microsoft antitrust trial in the United States is reaching such an ignominious end. But am I alone in my righteous indignation?
I won’t bore you with the details, but the Redmond giant is edging close to victory, via a settlement that contains so much wiggle room you could drive a truck through it. True, it faces opposition from nine U.S. states to its settlement with the Justice Department, and a host of other hearings and investigations. But chances are Microsoft will win out. And we users won’t.

What frosts my shorts up is that for all the teams of lawyers, miles of opinion, submissions and judgments there’s rarely been any mention of what I think is the main problem with Microsoft’s dominance of the software market: that users end up being worse off the more Microsoft products they use. We face the growing probability that if something goes wrong with one Microsoft product, the whole caboodle will come tumbling down with it.
Now this might sound slightly mad, but bear with me. The legal arguments have largely revolved around whether Microsoft has harmed consumer choice by what is called bundling, or tying, its products together. The main focus has been Internet Explorer, which Microsoft stands accused of intentionally binding into its Windows operating system to undermine rival browsers.

The problem is that this debate has, since its original airing in 1998, become largely irrelevant. Internet Explorer now dominates the marketplace — AOL Inc.’s once great Netscape Navigator now looks and feels like trying to drive a car with a fish for a steering wheel. It’s hard to imagine your average computer user waking up one morning and saying: “Hmm! I think I’ll remove IE and install BloggsBrowser today!” without thinking seriously about the likely consequences. (Don’t believe me? Try using Microsoft Money or Encarta without IE running properly. It gets ugly.)

What’s more, Microsoft increasingly dominates word-processing, spreadsheet, e-mail, contact-management, encyclopaedia and personal-finance software, blending so much of the code that your computer resembles less a multifunctional powerhouse than a tower of kiddies’ bricks. Pull out one and the whole thing comes crashing down.

Take what happened to me last week. When my laptop, running Windows 98, wouldn’t close down properly, I had to turn it off myself. When I turned it back on, I was faced with a scary message informing me my registry — the directory that stores settings for all the programs loaded onto the computer — had been corrupted and replaced with a previous version that was intact.

Now, this kind of thing shouldn’t be a problem. After all, it sounded as if my computer was in good hands. Wrong. The recovered version of the registry was apparently from a different era, blissfully unaware of the printers and other bits and bobs I had installed since the invention of the cotton jenny. Suddenly, anything with Microsoft’s name in it somewhere stopped working. Outlook — the e-mail and contact-management program — had mislaid all my personal settings and blithely assumed I was a new user. Microsoft Word, meanwhile, wouldn’t even leave the garage. Increasingly frustrated, I reloaded both Office and, when that didn’t really help, Windows itself. The whole experience has taken years off my life and I’ve started drinking again.

This is the direct consequence, in my view, of this bundling thing (the computer problem, not the drinking). All my other non-Microsoft programs worked fine despite the mayhem going on around them, making me grateful I hadn’t removed a simple old e-mail program I’d ditched for the bright lights of Outlook.

Where does this leave us? Well, I’d recommend doing two things. First, limit your exposure to bundled products by trying out alternatives, like Eudora, The Bat! or Pegasus.

Secondly, I’d suggest you submit your own comments to the court (microsoft.atr@usdoj.gov or www.usdoj.gov/atr/cases/ms-settle.htm) — something you’re entitled to do as a member of the public under a piece of antitrust legislation called the Tunney Act. Preferably using words like “flabbergasted” a lot.

Write to me at jeremy.wagstaff@feer.com

Loose Wire: War Games By

Loose Wire: War Games
By Jeremy Wagstaff

01/10/2002 Far Eastern Economic Review (Copyright (c) 2002, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

I’m not going to venture an opinion on the state of the war against terror, but I’m probably the only one. Think you can do better than the military? Try your hand at Real War, which isn’t just another warfare strategy shoot ’em up-well OK, it is, but it does have the added kudos of being “the commercial version of the official military Joint Forces game being used to train the United States armed forces.” This may actually explain more than I’d care to know about the U.S. armed forces: if they’re training on this then they’re in trouble.

For one thing, the units — tanks, aircraft, and ships — tend to run over one another quite regularly. For another, they don’t always do the logical thing when encountering an enemy, like opening fire on them. (Instead, the tanks move around aimlessly in the vicinity, a bit like dogs checking each other out.) Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fun game, and it extends the genre considerably. It’s just, well, I don’t like thinking the world is being saved for democracy by a bunch of guys whose training consisted of playing games like this.

A better bet, in my view, is World War III from JoWood, which has a bunch of features that raise the bar. First is the possibility of moving your point of view from high above the battlefield to right down next to the tanks you’re controlling. The terrain is beautiful, including snowfall and clouds. The tanks sport headlights that flick on after about 7 p.m., depending on whether you’re fighting in snowbound northern terrain or in the sand-spattered Middle East. Trains trundle disconcertingly past, even while you’re in the middle of a battle. All in all, the game’s worth it just for the view.

If you’re looking for a less violent way to prove your worth, then you might want to try Tropico, which makes you president of a poor Caribbean island. Your task is to make people happy and become popular, but most importantly to stay in power. This shouldn’t be too hard, given what a nice person you are, but as in any happy-go-lucky country there are always possibilities of violent overthrow — from popular uprisings to guerrilla attacks to coups d’etat by your own soldiers.

Ominously, the instruction manual is peppered with short biographies of illustrious leaders like Nicolae Ceausescu, Manuel Noriega and Ferdinand Marcos, which serve either as cautionary tales or role models, depending on what kind of mood you are in.

For the less political, there’s a welcome addition to games which are offshoots of Monopoly, that timeless board game that’s bound to cause ruptures in even the happiest family gathering. Monopoly Tycoon, from Infogrames, matches the best of Monopoly, the game, with what computers have to offer. It has great graphics — which actually show the sun going down over your town and street lights casting their pallid glow over the city — and configurability. As a would-be tycoon you must beat your opponent to build a chain of shops and apartment blocks and juggle distribution, pricing and location to woo the city’s fickle populace.

One that’s definitely not for the kids: Dope Wars, from Beermat Software, now into its second version, is a kind of Monopoly game for drug dealers. Despite its somewhat tasteless premise, it’s actually quite good fun, and there are enough warning flags for you to realize this is not an attempt to glamorize the seedy world of narcotics. Instead, you get a feel for the fact that, were it not illegal and highly destructive, drug dealing is a business like any other.

For glamorizing the tasteless, you’ll have to wait for Hooligans — The Game, a real-time strategy game where your objective is to become the most notorious group of soccer supporters in Europe. Designed by Dutch software house Darxabre, it was due for release in November but at the time of writing shows little sign of life.

That may be no bad thing: While their argument that games that involve killing, maiming and destroying your opponents are legion, there’s something pretty sad about soccer fans causing mayhem in real life, let alone on a computer. Unless of course, the graphics are so good that the police cars have got cool headlights and you can see individual flakes of snow as they drift down across the finely detailed city, in which case perhaps the U.S. army could use the program for urban guerrilla training.

Write to me at jeremy.wagstaff@feer.com

Column: Christmas stuff

Loose Wire — Have a Bidet Christmas

 
By Jeremy Wagstaff, from the 27 December 2001 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2001, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
For most of us, this Christmas is going to be what I would call (remember where you heard it first) a “bidet Christmas.” In a nutshellthis means we’re not looking to buy a whole new bathroom, but we’d like to buy something to remind ourselves we’re still consumers and there are still things out there we don’t need but we’ll buy anyway. Hence the bidet.

I’d like to point you in the direction of some items, which might charitably be called gizmo add-ons. You might not be expecting to get the latest gadget in your stocking this year, but you can at least make your existing gadget more functional.

First, your cellphone. The biggest drawback to these things is battery life. True, the batteries on most cellphones last a lot longer than they used to, and charge more quickly, but it’s still a pain to find you’ve run out of juice and are nowhere near an outlet. Help is at hand. Try these:

The Instant Power Charger (www.electric-fuel.com) draws energy from a disposable cartridge the size of a matchbox that in turn draws its power from oxygen in the air. Plug it into a cellphone (or personal digital assistant) and you can start using it straightaway: The battery will be recharged in a couple of hours. The cartridge lasts for three charges.

Consider chargers using normal batteries — you can usually find these at specialist electronic stores or cellphone shops. They’re keyring-size adaptors that fit into the charger socket of your phone and attach to a standard nine-volt battery.

Tired of carrying around an adaptor on business trips? From computer peripheral shops you can buy a cable that plugs into your personal computer’s USB port, which will also do the job of recharging your cellphone (or PDA), albeit it at a somewhat slower rate.

Be careful in all these cases to get the right cable for your cellphone or PDA, since one size doesn’t fit all. And try to buy a reputable brand, since in some cases you could damage your gadget.

Now, that’s the practical stuff out of the way. I love my PDA but I’m mighty bored with carrying the same PDA case all the time. I’d recommend trying out alternative cases. I’ve taken the liberty of road-testing a number on your behalf, my only rule of thumb is the case shouldn’t cost more than the PDA:

Britain’s Scribble (www.scribble.co.uk) also put out an interesting range of cases, including a black plastic Palm case with interchangeable panels, from black to sharp blue. Scribble also make a simple synthetic rubber case with added protection front and back, as do Marware (www.marware.com).

The more rugged adventurer might want to consider GrinderGear, who prefer to call their PDA cases Sport Utility Bags, or SUBs for short. These are padded, dripping with zips, tassels and tags, and come with hooks so you can strut along a ridge with your PDA bouncing off your hip.

Have a good Christmas and New Year-with or without the bidet.