Thursday, 27 June 2002

The Takeaway Economy

Don’t even mention WorldCom, but the overwhelming sense of gloom and doom in the technology sector is pervasive. In a week where all my friends seemed to be saying much the same thing, regardless of the size of company in which they work. If there’s any light at the end of the tunnel, none of them can see it yet, as they see their marketing budgets slashed and the treat of redundancy or more redundancies hanging over their businesses.

What saddens me most, is that we have some really shining examples of technology left in this country which aren’t yet owned by the Americans and yet the investment climate is now so poor that I know of one or two which are on the verge of closing-up or selling the business for a song because they simply cannot raise any investment capital. It strikes me that if Bill Gates were to write a personal reference for a small UK technology company today, the City would still reject the idea. “Gates, he’s American, what does he know”?

You can’t blame the bankers after they saw companies like Baltimore raised to almost divine status on market sentiment and crash into a small dark puddle of loose change when the Internet bubble burst.

What’s doubly sad is that in the race to become a leading information economy, we are becoming more of an outlet for some other large country’s technology franchise. A kind of software McDonalds hanging off the edge of Europe. Perhaps I’m just being old and cynical, thinking back to the days of drinking the occasional glass of wine with Clive Sinclair at Draycotts in Chelsea. I remember asking him once: “Have you ever thought of connecting a dozen or so Spectrums together to make one large computer”? I think we call it P2P today or even networking but then it was rather ahead of its time and anyway, the idea for the C5 car beckoned!

So, with little or no money for investment, the state of our home-grown industry goes from bad to worse and the best people sell themselves and their ideas, in other countries where the chances of finding support are greater. Personally, I believe Government needs a wakeup call. Stop drowning small business in new paperwork, like the Class 1A NIC in front of me and reward and support entrepreneurs and ideas in the technology sector. The alternative is a knowledge economy with very little knowledge of its own, and a feeling, echoed by many of the smaller software companies I have spoken with, that their contribution to our future is a polite irrelevance.

Being an information economy means rather more than choosing and using somebody else’s software. Wouldn't you agree?

Tuesday, 25 June 2002

Spin it to Me Steve

When I read the news, I had a dizzy spell and had to sit down!

This was of course that Microsoft plans to create a "Secure" PC environment
with a technology called "Palladium", that you can read more about on CW360.

Now, the idea of Microsoft building a secure PC is, well, like the idea of
hospitals without waiting lists, because for all the platitudes about
'Trusted Computing', I have yet to find anyone who really believes that the
company can pull it off and that Trusted Computing is anything more than the
company 'Spinning' what it should have done to its lamentably insecure
products ten years ago.

In reality though, Microsoft has very little choice to do anything else but
strengthen its software. Quite frankly, computer crime of one kind or
another is costing business billions and Governments are starting to become
quite twitchy about the grip the company has on the public sector. Microsoft
either starts making really secure software or the market will steadily and
incrementally, move away from Microsoft.

I, for one, believe that Microsoft has seen the light and really wishes to
demonstrate the reformed nature of its character. The problem is, that
reform will take time, quite probably years, before developments at the
leading edge of the company's technology, filter down to the level of the
desktop, where people are still using Windows 95 or Windows NT.

And that's the problem. Microsoft's incredible growth, the size of its
monopoly and the legacy software it carries with it, a record of success
which was largely responsible for all the problems that still plague us.

Before Windows XP remember, the Operating System really represented the
software equivalent of a Dutch doll. Inside every new operating system were
the remains of earlier DLLs, one built upon the other, all the way back to
DOS.

But unless we suddenly move to a Network Computing model, the
vulnerabilities that still remain in hundred of thousands of systems will
the Microsoft-centric world vulnerable. It means years to come of buying
anti-virus software licenses, of hacks and cracks and worms and Trojans and
more.

Microsoft, having unwittingly opened Pandora's Box, are now trying to close
it again with clever, innovative technology and a reassuring new "Trust me,
I'm from Redmond
" smile. I am however prepared to bet, that if I bookmark my
calendar for a date twelve months from now, I'll be able to look back on a
catalogue of compromise and disaster, which is little better than the last
twelve months.

Steve Ballmer, you have my full support. Put 'Security First' and really
mean it. Imitate Russell Crowe, rally the troops, brandish your corporate
sword and shout, "What we do in life, echoes in eternity". But also consider
that while strengthening future products shows determination, it's the
immediacy and severity of today's problem that needs to be addressed by
rather more than rudimentary security features in Windows XP.

Sunday, 23 June 2002

Hands Free

Even the most advanced technology available today still seems to be at the mercy of the telephone.

I was flitting around the Kent countryside over the weekend, listening to other pilots complaining that the French air traffic controllers weren’t responding to their calls. “Calais and Le Touquet aren’t answering the phone either” replied the controller. This can be a little awkward, as the channel airspace becomes rather crowded on a Saturday afternoon and after all, the strike was supposed to have finished the day before but perhaps nobody told the French, who were quite possibly on a long lunch?

When I landed back on the little farm strip, coincidentally owned by a friend from Unisys, I found a Police officer, a single Constable tasked with defending Kent from the airborne threats of terrorism and drugs, waiting for me.

“Expecting any flights from Ireland today”, he asked? “Not that I know of”, I said.

“Been anywhere interesting?”

“Just Sangatte to smuggle-in more refugees and cigarettes!”.

“Some people have all the fun” was his reply.

The irony of seeing the Policeman was reflected by an earlier experience, two weeks before, when an aircraft had called ‘Mayday’ with an engine failure and subsequently made a forced landing on the isolated strip. When I arrived, I found the pilot was on the phone, trying to call Kent Police, to announce that he and his aircraft were in one piece and to cancel the emergency. It came as no surprise that the Police weren’t answering the phone, with anything but a recorded message and when I left, he was still trying to get through.

Of course, the trick about using the telephone in an emergency is having the luck to find someone at the other end. If it’s my wife or mother-in-law, there’s little or no chance of rescue, as their cell phones never appear to be switched on or if they are, then they are engaged. But in general, mobile phones have proved themselves time and again and again as lifesavers.

Last year, I was making an approach to a busy airport, when my aircraft radio suddenly failed. I fiddled with the connections as best I could, which left me able to receive but not transmit. Worrying about the circling group of much larger aircraft that lay ahead of me, I had a flash of inspiration, grabbed my mobile phone and speed-dialed the number of a friend at the local flying club, adjacent to the airport. Bellowing down the phone, because I couldn’t hear him over the engine noise, I gave him my position and call-sign and a few minutes later, was relieved to hear the approach controller, calling me on the radio, with instructions to guide me through the traffic to a safe landing.

But mobile phones quite probably cost more lives than they save.

Last month, a friend was on the called his wife from the car, to tell her he would be home for dinner soon. He never finished the conversation. Misjudging a bend in the road, he drove head-on into a tree and was killed instantly.

He was the second person I’ve known of to become a mobile phone statistic. The first, an IT Director, drove his BMW into a bridge support on the M1. Hands-free communications should, I believe, be a strict rule for both cars and aircraft and even motorbikes but with the arrival of a new generation of multi-functional, colour capable mobile phones, just around the corner, together with the distraction of wireless devices like my GPRS Blackberry which constantly receive email, man’s best friend, his car, is becoming a more dangerous place than ever before.

Thursday, 20 June 2002

No Trojan Horse – It’s a Plastic Giraffe.

Trend Micro are, I see, giving away plastic safari animals to their re-seller channel. Hardly a day passes without another plastic giraffe appearing in the post as part of a wacky sales incentive scheme.

I’m told, that once you have collected enough plastic animals and palm trees in a jungle scheme, you have to take a digital photo of the collection and then send it in to see if you have won the safari holiday at the end of the exercise.

Quite what the connection is between anti-virus and plastic animals, I don’t quite know but to be honest, I did rather prefer the bright yellow Mont Blanc pens that Symantec were once handing out. You can’t beat style. Plastic giraffe or Mont Blanc pen, it’s a tough choice for some!

Staying with security vendors, IDC has released its latest report on the shape of the industry. Symantec, Trend Micro and Network Associates are respectively first, second and third in turnover and the research company has identified emerging ‘Blended threats’ as the most immediate threat facing all of us.

“A blended threat”, according to IDC, “is a complex virus or worm program that targets multiple weaknesses in computer networks and is capable of doing damage in multiple ways. · Unlike traditional viruses, which rely on the user to spread the infected files, blended threats are automated and are always scanning the Internet and local networks for vulnerabilities and other computers to infect; that is, they spread without user interaction”.

If recent logs from my Norton ‘Personal Firewall’ are any measure of the threat, then it’s becoming observably worse on an almost quarterly basis. I’m not seeing a single Internet session, through BT Internet from home – dial-up – that doesn’t have some apparent port-scan exploit from “somewhere out there”.

It is interesting that IDC dwells on the drive towards the bigger picture of ‘Secure Content Management’, (SCM) the integration of policies, hardware and software to provide ‘overall protection’, rather than the piecemeal approach that the majority of companies have in place today.

A second prediction concerns mobile security, a topic I have been bashing-on-about for months now. As the Internet is freed from its cabled connection to a PC and becomes increasingly pervasive over wireless networks into multiple device types, the same threats that plagued the desktop PC will simply move on and up into the wireless space, with an potential for serious damage and disruption.

Unfortunately, I see complacency creeping into business all over again. It’s been almost twelve months since I did my ‘End of the World’ ‘turn’ about Code Red on the BBC and since then and Nimda, we haven’t had a serious meltdown. This is of course good news for the SCM vendors, because it implies that sales of anti-virus software are healthy but at the same time, apart from a few scares, we haven’t seen anything really nasty appear on the scale of Code Red. Once people think that they are protected or that the threat is exaggerated is the point when vulnerability starts all over again and we only have to look at the renewed incidence of HIV in the real world.

Much like the risk of an earthquake in San Francisco or Tokyo, we are overdue for another malicious code outbreak and so, if you haven’t got your SCM policy in place and your anti-virus definitions aren’t up to date, this is probably a good time to do something about it.

I can’t promise you a Mont Blanc pen or a plastic giraffe but peace of mind is worth much more.
Bridging the Digital Divide

Welcome to the aftermath of the old economy. In the race between Europe's new 'just-in-time, 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week' super-states, we are in danger of losing our ability to manage the expectations of an increasingly wired society. Technology can help fulfil our ambitions, but it doesn't do much for people who can't afford ambition.

A warning comes from the heart of the internet revolution, the US. A Gartner Group report has found that a whole generation of up to 50 million Americans could become 'functionally illiterate' in the future due to a lack of knowledge of, or access to, the internet.

Gartner found that just 35 per cent of adults in the lower-socio-economic-status bracket had internet access, compared with 53 per cent in the lower-middle, 79 per cent in the upper-middle, and 83 per cent in the top bracket.

The report identified three digital divides: access to the internet; a skills gap between those who know how to benefit from the internet and those who don't; and speed of access to the internet.

As the posturing over cheap, unmetered internet access continues, and the availability of broadband (ADSL & cable) increases, a danger exists that this third divide - between those with high-speed access and those without - may leave non-metropolitan areas disadvantaged.

In many respects this threat mirrors the socio-economic gaps in PC ownership today and raises the unacceptable prospect of second-class access to the information super-highway. In Brit-ain, where a quarter of homes are believed to have access to the internet, one can sit comfortably inside the well-connected embrace of the M25 and imagine the benefits of the new dot-communism reaching equally in all directions. But look less than a hundred miles into the South East, as far as Margate perhaps, and the gap between new- and old-economy imagination and aspiration starts to resemble a chasm.

Where does one draw the line between one industrial era and another? Is the criterion for an advanced information society really as simple as counting the number of electronic messages that pass between individuals and companies? According to the latest government-sponsored survey, 27 per cent of UK businesses are now using the internet. Scotland leads, with 29 per cent of companies trading online. But compare these figures with private-sector research. Although Ministers claim that the UK is on a par with Germany, the US and Sweden, PricewaterhouseCoopers recently announced that Germany was leading Europe in online transactions.

Uncomfortable facts of early twenty-first century life are that we live in a time of profound and complex change in a global economy constantly pursuing the highest profits and lowest transaction costs and that the remains of our manufacturing base is increasingly moving overseas. Unskilled Indonesians may pack processors for a few dollars a day, but a skilled European information worker can command more than £50,000 a year. Between these two extremes, and in every industrial society, there are populations who are too poor and unskilled to share in the new affluence; whose opportunities are increasingly restricted by economic and political forces outside their control.

Throughout Europe, governments are anticipating a long-term devastation of the retail and public sector workforce caused by 'disintermediation': the elimination of the middleman by the arrival of the 'just-in-time' forces of information and communications technology (ICT). But the forces of progress carry the seeds of their own acute skills crisis. No single nation has a large enough pool of information-literate workers available to sustain the rapid growth in the global networked economy.

The Institute of Directors has 50,000 members from across the old and new economy spectrum. For many, commercial ambition is increasingly constrained by the people factor. While optimism remains high, ICT employment costs are spiralling, and in the absence of a silicon-savvy workforce any vision of economic utopia appears increasingly distant. Understandably, Professor Jim Norton, the IoD's director of e-business development, believes human capital is our ultimate resource. 'Bridging the digital divide and enfranchising all of our population in the e-economy must be the Government's top priority,' he says.

In the race to wire UK society into the internet, the Government has a vision, a budget and an initiative. The UK Online project, directed by Department for Education and Employment Minister Michael Wills, has set itself the ambitious target of full digital emancipation within five years. A new research centre is to be created to investigate the impact of new technology and will lead the efforts to end the so-called digital divide before it becomes a problem of acute social exclusion.

Facing the prospect of a lost generation, how do governments plan to re-engineer the workforce to meet the demands of a global networked economy?

Wills sees the UK Online project meeting the challenge, with two core priorities. 'First, the internet revolution isn't happening for everyone. Every person has the right to access and participate in these technologies. Second, we need to make sure that we have the right skills base. Alongside this comes another range of priorities; the right use of ICT in schools and communities. In the medium to long term, we have to close the skills gap in society. In the short term, and like every OECD country, we have a shortage of people with the right skills, and we have to tackle this head on and in a variety of ways.'

In Wills' opinion: the principal challenges that governments need to address urgently are hardware, software and connectivity. 'The danger of a "third-divide" appearing is enormously important, which is why we are encouraging the widest kind of competition from telecommunications carriers. While we have a quite well developed cable industry, government needs to immediately target the danger of rural deprivation, and we wish to find innovative ways of reaching disadvantage and deprivation. The truth is that in 20 years we will have got there - but we have to get there quicker than that.'

While nobody would doubt that the Prime Minister's own commitmentto rapid action, investment and education are a vital first step in devising a strategy to address a growing skills deficit, there is a harsher macro-economic big picture to consider. Do we in Europe have, like the Americans, a lost generation of our own, a thirtysomething workforce intel lectually and emotionally unprepared for the changes and challenges ahead?

The new 'knowledge economy' will be a harsh environment for the common man. While a universal grasp of and access to ICT will emancipate more people in the device space of the web, one must question whether UK Online can deliver a central part of its vision in time. Can it swiftly produce the army of skilled and educated experts required to run tomorrow's new economy today?

Observer Newspaper (Sunday October 22, 2000)

Tuesday, 18 June 2002

Last Knight

Having gone nowhere with my application for The House of Lords last year, my attempt to gain a place in the Queen’s birthday honours list failed miserably. I had thought the photo of Nelson Mandela and me, together with the inclusion of a fifty-pound postal order and my own special Jubilee curry recipe would have done the trick but not this year, as more deserving souls were ahead of me in the queue.

I had thought, in an earlier column, that taking a scene from ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ ,The Home Secretary wouldn’t dare volunteer poor Bob Ainsworth for television duty again, following his performance against Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight. I even suggested as much in a private conversation in an office not far from Whitehall but hoping for ‘Second time lucky”, the Minister was once again placed in goal for Radio 4’s World at One with predictable results.

And then, the penny dropped and Mr Blunkett decided that his guide dog had greater television appeal than his deputy – a BBC Producer’s comment – and the pair of them decided to announce the Government’s hasty retreat from the ill-considered RIP legislation together

I wonder, if like me, you sometimes despair over our politicians’ grasp of technology? Now, at least we have a computer-savvy eMinister, Stephen Timms, who has a respectable IT background, and Patricia Hewitt is a smart lady, there’s little doubt about that. But the Home Office appears to be a law unto itself and both beards and bad attitude appear to be mandatory and this isn’t simply my opinion.

There’s little doubt that we need legislation that can balance the interests of national security and the criminal justice systems against the open nature of the Internet. Achieving this requires intelligent debate and a fundamental understanding of the technology and its direction. I’ve sat in the House of Commons on two occasions now, listening to committee debates on Internet security and left feeling deeply pessimistic.

Unable to clearly frame the nature of the threat and the technical challenges that accompany it, Government’s answer is the legislative equivalent of the baseball bat. Blunt, unsubtle and wildly indiscriminate in its application. These days, we talk a great deal about eGovernment and eDemocracy and both imply a greater degree of involvement and a novel kind of relationship between Government and citizen, one, which is quite contrary to the idea of using legislation as bludgeon.

If the law isn’t fit for purpose then Government, shouldn’t follow the example of some very large IT companies and try and sell it to us on the basis that we accept shaky legislation today and hope, that the guidelines – Parliamentary jargon for a Service Pack - when published, will resolve all the bugs.

There, I suppose goes any chance of a mention in next year’s honours list but perhaps if I work on being more unprincipled and inarticulate than I am already my chances might improve!

Notes to Editors:

1) The Foundation for Information Policy Research (www.fipr.org), is a
non-profit think-tank for Internet and Information Technology policy,
governed by an independent Board of Trustees with an Advisory Council
of experts.

2. The only independent oversight of this part of the RIP Act is
provided by the Interception Commissioner, but as no central records
are kept of accesses, he must travel around every police force and
agency inspecting a random sample of their records.

3. Alan Beith MP of the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee told
Parliament in 2001 that the commissioner was "dependent on a tiny
support structure which is quite incapable of carrying out the job...
there was not even anybody to open the mail, let alone process it,
for many months."

see Hansard 29 Mar 2001, Col 1150


4. The order, now abandoned, is at:

5. A RIP s22 notice will reveal details held by a communications service
provider such as...

name and address
service usage details
details of who you have been calling
details of who has called you
mobile phone location info
source and destination of email
usage of web sites (but not pages within such sites)

6. The current list of bodies allowed to serve RIP s22 notices is:

Police (all the forces, MOD police, NCS, NCIS)
Secret Intelligence Agencies (MI5, MI6, GCHQ)
Customs and Excise
Inland Revenue

7. The order was to extend the list of public authorities that can issue
RIP s22 notices (ie to access traffic data from telcos and ISPs)...

...to add the following central Government departments

1. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
2. The Department of Health.
3. The Home Office.
4. The Department of Trade and Industry.
5. The Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions.
6. The Department for Work and Pensions.
7. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment for Northern
Ireland.

AND pretty much any local authority

8. Any local authority within the meaning of section 1 of the Local
Government Act 1999
9. Any fire authority as defined in the Local Government (Best Value)
Performance Indicators Order 2000
10. A council constituted under section 2 of the Local Government etc.
(Scotland) Act 1994
11. A district council within the meaning of the Local Government Act
(Northern Ireland) 1972

AND NHS bodies in Scotland and Northern Ireland

12. The Common Services Agency of the Scottish Health Service.
13. The Northern Ireland Central Services Agency for the Health and
Social Services.

AND some other bodies

14. The Environment Agency.
15. The Financial Services Authority.
16. The Food Standards Agency.
17. The Health and Safety Executive.
18. The Information Commissioner.
19. The Office of Fair Trading.
20. The Postal Services Commission.
21. The Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency.
22. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency.
23. The United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority Constabulary.
24. A Universal Service Provider within the meaning of the Postal
Services Act 2000

Sunday, 16 June 2002

My Left Foot

“Why” said Jeremy Paxman, “should we be bothered by this RIP Act? After all, unless you’ve something to hide, you’re not going to be worried by the prospect of government reading your email”.

It was a Wednesday night, ‘Newsnight’ in fact and the BBC had invited me to take part in the programme’s lead story, The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. All of a sudden and prompted by the Guardian’s front page revelation, the media had woken-up to the news that the infamous RIPA was to be extended, perhaps even to traffic wardens, a tongue in cheek comment, that Newsnight picked-up.

Mr. Paxman needed some convincing and at first, he didn’t recognize the legislation as a gross invasion of privacy and violation of our civil rights. My own role that evening, other than offering him a brief, was to take part in a three way discussion with a Home Office Minister but time and the Minister’s reluctance to participate in such a very public and live debate, left me spectating from the sideline and the politician exposed to Paxman’s tender mercies. Under pressure from the inimitable Jeremy, the Minister was made to look like a Stalinist goon with two left feet, who just couldn’t avoid kicking the ball into the back of the Home Office net every couple of minutes. I’m sure the Home Secretary will think twice before sending one of his deputies to depend the indefensible in future.

If the cynical Paxman could be persuaded that RIPA is an unbelievably stupid piece of legislation then there’s always hope that someone nearer the top of the political tree might wonder why on earth we’ve got this far in the ‘Mother of Parliaments’. As one expert on the legislation suggested to me, ‘RIPA is an example of a ‘catch-all’ piece of legislation. The Government is attempting to rush through an Act which sweeps up any conceivable evolution in communications technology. They tried this with CCTV to reduce crime and it failed miserably and they’ll do the same thing with the Internet, which will fail equally miserably”.

If Government is going to obsess about the Internet, there are other, equally pressing areas, which I believe, should be attracting more attention. The other day, while reading a story on terrorism, I followed a link to a page on how the FBI had forced one popular US website to remove a video of the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. The hyperlink sent me to a site which broadcasts the darkest and most disgusting images of human misery and depravity. Foolishly, my own curiosity encouraged me to open the MPEG file of the ‘execution’; the decapitation of a young Russian soldier by a Chechen guerilla with a kitchen knife. It’s an image of bloody horror that will haunt me and yet it’s one that your child or mine can just as easily find and share in seconds.

Where should our priorities be I wonder? Snooping on every citizen’s email or wondering whether the ‘right’ to leverage the Internet as a medium for free speech and free expression has gone too far?

Wednesday, 12 June 2002

Wave Goodbye to Privacy
Two years have passed since I gave a speech at “The Internet & Power” conference at Cambridge, where I warned that the threat of a new Act of Parliament, “The Regulation of Investigatory Powers”, would drive the final nail into any illusion of freedom left to us.

In a grand rhetorical gesture, I said “What began with Magna Carta, ends with RIP” and the Act was highly controversial when it was first presented to Parliament, resulting in defeats for the Government in the Lords and significant changes being made to prevent its complete rejection.

Now, I don’t care much for political rants and the opinions of left or even right wing loonies. I much prefer common sense and in most cases, believe that mixing government and technology is a recipe for the worst kinds of embarrassment and disaster. But RIP is a special case, because what many of us feared most seems to be about to happen, as the Act is amended to increase the number of official bodies that can access personal details of phone calls and emails.

Originally the powers were only available to the police, customs, Inland Revenue, and the security services but FIPR (The Foundation for information Policy Research) is now warning that amendments will extend this power to other government departments, local authorities, the NHS and apparently even as far as your postman, through the Post Office.- Consignia.

According to The FIPR, “The powers contained in RIP Part I Chapter II allow notices to be served on telephone companies, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) or postal operators to obtain information such as the name and address of users, phone numbers called, source and destination of emails, the identity of web sites visited or mobile phone location data accurate to a hundred metres or less”.

Ian Brown, the Director of FIPR has remarked that the difficulty that the Government has encountered in getting the right processes in place for the police should make us ultra-cautious in extending these powers to such a wide range of bodies, with little enough resources put into the oversight arrangements for the current proposals. In practice, these bodies are going to obtain this personal data on anyone they wish, without any effective way of checking what they're doing.

I would like to believe that post-911, RIP will be exercises sensibly and with appropriate restraint but then I would like to believe the same thing about my local council’s unrestricted use of traffic wardens, who might, to play the complete cynic, also qualify as “authorized officials”.

I do wonder sometimes whether there’s a new ‘Reformation’ at work in this country of ours with the Internet and not the Bible as the blunt instrument of social change. We might have David Starkey’s ‘Life of Henry VIII’ to entertain us in the evenings but sadly, in our apathetic and hurried digital age, we have no modern equivalent of Sir Thomas More, a powerful enough figure prepared to lucidly defend the remains of our freedoms on a matter of principle.
In My Wildest Dreams
It was more of a whisper than a bang. The news that Novell the company that does that nice Director Service and is fast becoming in many people’s minds, the ‘Consignia’ of the IT industry, has bought Silverstream Software – one of the Dot Com era’s bigger bangs – at a generous $9.00 a share.

At this point I need to declare my interests. I still hold Silverstream stock. In fact, the clever, Java-centric middleware company was once one of my TV stock picks, alongside QXL and Redhat at a time when my virtual portfolio soared from a stake of £100,000 to £478,000, making me the number three tipster in a six month ‘Money Programme’ style competition.

Rather sensibly I think, with hindsight, I chose to put all my winnings into a large virtual yacht, weeks before the Internet bubble burst and today, the value of my carefully chosen portfolio of technology ‘winners’ would probably stretch to buying a new Mini and that’s about all.

Silverstream, for a while there soared from $25 to $126 in the space of a couple of months before creeping back down to $70 and then $40 and when I finally decided to rid myself of my moribund Compaq stock at $35, I thought that Silverstream had to rebound or indeed, be swallowed-up pretty soon.

Well, I was right, almost. Two years later. Silverstream didn’t as much rebound as almost sink without trace as it was squashed between the largest vendors, such as BEA, IBM and Sun and a market that just didn’t want to know about technology stocks. Once the value of the stock dropped below $10.00, I lost interest in the few hundred pounds my original stake was now worth and only came across news of the Novell acquisition this week by accident.

Novell, a company that I helped start in the UK, was, not so long ago, deriding Web services. But memories are short and now it plans to compete directly with IBM and Sun and Microsoft for a share of tomorrow’s promised multi-billion Web services business.

Novell’s ‘One Net’ – the name is vaguely familiar - and clever ‘eXtend’ product line is part of the company’s new ‘Web stuff’ integration strategy which will allow companies to reach deeper into the information hidden in legacy systems. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this idea other than trying to convince myself that Novell could succeed in taking market share away from its larger rivals, just because it happened upon Silverstream at a Boot Fair?

So today, I’m once again the proud owner of Novell stock, not something I would have chosen to do but look on the bright side, at least I can afford to buy a Big Mac Meal with what was once left of my original Silverstream investment. To be honest, I can’t see Silverstream reversing Novell’s declining fortunes, as hard as I try to be charitable. I’m now just waiting for someone to buy Novell. Any guesses?

Friday, 7 June 2002

Not Out But In

If it happens to be Monday and you’re not reading this, then perhaps it’s because the Internet has collapsed.

Of course this has nothing to do with hackers or a sinister attack on our national infrastructure and everything to do with KPNQwest, which handles nearly half of Europe's Internet traffic, sliding into bankruptcy last week. The company is threatening to pull the plug unless it’s creditors settle their debts, by close of play today, Friday, I suppose, a remote possibility, given that I’m the only person left at my desk and everyone else is watching England playing Argentina, surrounded by empty cans of Lager.

Now, if you happen to be an AOL or a Freeserve subscriber, then it’s quite possible that you’re looking at a blank screen now and if you’re not, then you should be surprised and relieved simultaneously.

And on another European note, and as expected, The European Parliament has voted to make the sending of unsolicited email ‘Spam’ illegal. This won’t actually pass into law until next year and ‘cookies’ have been saved from being banned under the same legislation but it does rather leave one isolated nation hanging off the edge of Europe, fighting bravely alone for the right to have its citizens spammed by tedious offers of Swedish furniture, personal massage services and the kind of sleaze that deserves a personal invitation to tea at No10.

As I briefly pause to delete a Spam message that has just dropped into my mailbox from mattgerche@euol.com I can say with confidence that CW360 has clearly demonstrated that its readers don’t wish to be spammed and hold strong views on the dithering that inflicts this sordid plague upon everyone using the Internet. When the subject of Spam is discussed privately, I find that people in Government are clearly embarrassed and agree that ‘Opting in’ is the more sensible solution than ‘Opting-out’ but nobody appears to know why on earth, as a nation, we are defending Spam as a legitimate marketing tool and supporting the right of others to continually pester us with the contents of Pandora’s Box.

So Government, will you please accept that if there was a referendum, there be overwhelming support for the banning of unsolicited email and that continued support for principle of ‘Spamming’ suggests that you have lost touch with popular opinion and have little grasp of the productivity costs that Spam imposes on British business, as well as the danger that it presents to the younger and more vulnerable parts of our society.

Ban Spam or at least tell us why you believe we shouldn’t and why an ‘Opt-out’ policy is in the public interest.

Wednesday, 5 June 2002

Dead Poets Society

I was just talking to a friend of mine in marketing. It’s not something I hold against him and he’s remarkably good at it, quite possibly one of the whirlwinds of the IT industry. You name the available technology and he’ll find a way of getting his message out to you, like it or not. In fact, he’s so close to spamming that only our data protection laws keep him marginally respectable. If you’re connected then of course you’re fair game and mailing lists are one of his principal sources of information.

This is of course, the problem we face if we register for a magazine or a newswire or visit a show or even own a credit card, Complete the most innocuous looking survey or customer questionnaire and your life then becomes the property of someone else, to be sold and bartered much like bubble gum cards.

My friend recently managed to acquire a ‘Hot’ list of UK Chief Executives and promptly mailed the lot. This revealed an interesting statistic, namely that CEOs appear to be dropping off their perches at an alarming rate. Although not quite an endangered species, they appear to be threatened. By what, I can’t be sure but certainly, being a CEO, particularly of an IT company, is up they’re with risks of a mine clearance job in Cambodia.

Now it’s quite possible that you have a CEO of your own who may not yet have expired or at least gives the impression of still being alive. Possible clues are whether he is still breathing or responds to his email, although, it’s entirely possible in some of our larger and better-known technology companies, that the CEO hasn’t yet learned how to use email and prefers a ‘clean desk’ management policy.

It could well be the case that the recent threats of recession and savage cuts within the industry have had a more dramatic impact at the top of organisations than we may have first thought. Either that or it’s another case for Inspector Morse. But the moral of the story is that not even death is an escape from the marketing men anymore and if there’s a way to send email into the next world, you can be certain they’ll find it pretty soon. Perhaps the best protection is to have a mailbox address of CEO@company.com which you can be sure re-directs immediately to Limbo and unlike a recent incident in Silicon Valley, don’t rely on the cleaners to tell you that the boss has been slumped over his desk for three days; take in an occasional cup of coffee and see if he drinks it between naps.
Eyes Wide Shut

I’ve been sitting here for ages trying to come up with an appropriate football theme but all I can think of is a list of ‘Own Goals’, the very best fumble of the last month going to The Inland Revenue, which obligingly allowed people filing their tax returns on-line, to view details of other peoples’ returns. Given the Revenue’s unenviable record for losing information and blaming the subsequent disappearance on the citizen, this new ‘Twinning’ feature isn’t such a bad idea, as you will at least know that you have a totally random and independent witness in another tax district, who has read your personal financial details and can support your claim that your information is on the system. What the Revenue do after this is anyone’s guess but last year, over a period of months, I received several bloodcurdling demands for my PIID, which after faxing copies personally and through my accountants three times, with covering letters, they finally conceded that they weren’t going to repossess my children after all.

Electronic Government is of course a subject I think about on a regular basis and when you scrape away its cling-film wrapping of rhetoric and shiny technology, you’re left with a central proposition that is based upon trust. Rather like Moses leading his people to the Promised Land, we need to believe that the Red Sea will indeed part, with a little help from Microsoft and that our tax returns and anything else transacted digitally with government, will arrive on ‘the other side’, complete, secure and with its feet still dry.

In many respects, we are, in the UK, a shining example to the rest of the world when it comes to the development of our own eGovernment processes. This kind of accolade may draw cynical smiles from readers but foreign governments, including even the Iranians admire the very structured planning and the effort to define a common standard, which underpins behind the 2005 vision of joined-up government. Of course, the problem isn’t so much in the planning as in the delivery, whether this happens to involve air traffic control systems or ‘pay as you earn’. Regardless of how good the software and hardware might happen to be, the integration, connecting all the front end ‘stuff’ to the back-end stuff, quite possibly through an XML cloud, appears to be constantly fraught with the potential for disaster.

I’m never entirely sure these days whether the monumental ‘cock-ups’ that constantly plague the Public Sector are the result of technology being cynically oversold by big corporations or are the responsibility of senior civil servants who still believe in fairies.

If you work in IT long enough, you learn that the more integrated, ambitious and expensive a project, the less likely it is to work first time or even at all, which is why all the biggest players in the hardware business are switching into the more lucrative services game and have developed a healthy interest in eGovernment.
Unfortunately, embarrassment is the heavy price of progress and eGovernment, like football, looks very much like a game of two halves.