Remember how Britain took over the internet in 2000 by getting it all to run on Greenwich Electronic Time? No?
Something on Twitter reminded me of this. This was written for the January 27 2000 edition of The Independent.
BY CHARLES ARTHUR
Britain’s Greenwich meridian could become the new reference point for time over the Internet, after two rival groups of British businesses resolved their differences over whose measurement they should use.
Greenwich Electronic Time (GeT) will be a powerful brand which could guarantee that companies based in different countries doing business deals could be certain of when they happened.
With more and more time-sensitive data being exchanged - such as online stockbroking and consumer purchases - it is increasingly important to be able to confirm when transactions take place, said James Roper, chief executive of the Interactive Media in Retail Group.
“Who owns a product at what time if you buy it over the Internet?” said Mr Roper. “If you don’t agree about what time it is, you could find that there is a time during which people think they own it - and if both of them then try to sell it you could have real problems.”
By using GeT as a single reference time, confirmed by a network of super-precise clocks around the Internet, Britain would be “at the forefront of Internet development,” said the Government’s newly appointed “e-envoy” Alex Allan, the former British High Commissioner to Australia.
Comparing timestamps of online transactions has already helped to track down fraudsters, said Ian Collins, managing director of Cybersource, which provides the software that powers many e-commerce Web sites. Extending GeT further would help to do that in future, he said.
Yesterday’s launch saw the unification of two factions that had threatened to split the initiative before it started.
The Prime Minister Tony Blair initially launched GeT on January 1 - but it did not then have the essential backing of the London Internet Exchange (Linx), which represents the major Internet service providers in the UK.
Linx, whose offices lie on the Greenwich meridian, had planned to launch its own Greenwich Net Time earlier this month - but was persuaded not to by lobbying from the Government and other industry bodies. Instead the two merged their efforts to produce the single brand.
The Internet already has a network of clocks which are meant to contact each other and confirm their time by connecting to other precision clocks, usually running on “Coordinated Universal Time”, a global standard adopted in 1982.
A key step in promoting the GeT “brand” will be the availability of free software from its Web site at www.get-time.org which will enable businesses and users to ensure that their computers are in tune with GeT, and to timestamp e-mails and Web transactions against them. That software should be available in the next three or four months, said Mr Roper.
Great idea! (Well, inside the civil service it seemed great. I thought it was a pile of nonsense. After all, you already had UTC, coordinated via atomic clocks over the net.) What could possibly go wrong?
And then in August:
BY CHARLES ARTHUR
A high-profile scheme launched by Tony Blair in January to make Greenwich the reference point for “Internet time” has run into a dead end. It cannot work with Microsoft’s Web browser, used by the vast majority of Net surfers.
Now, the team behind the “Greenwich Electronic Time” (GeT) initiative are wondering if they will ever be able to persuade people to use their product.
“Overhyped? Er, that would be true and fair I suppose,” said James Roper, chief executive of the Interactive Media in Retail Group (IMRG), one of the scheme’s backers. “We have encountered a nightmare of problems that were so compounded we hardly knew where to start.”
Announcing the plan to create “Greenwich Electronic Time” (GeT), at the start of the year, Mr Blair suggested it would put Britain back at the centre of timekeeping in the new millennium just as the invention of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) did during the age of sail.
But the reality has proved rather different. The GeT team had suggested in January that within four months they would offer free software for PCs which would be accurate to 0.003 seconds against an existing world standard set by atomic clocks.
Instead, the project only last week produced the first version of its software - and The Independent found that it can display times on the same screen which are out of sync with each other by nine seconds or more.
The problem stems from Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser, used by more than 80 per cent of Web surfers. Computer code within the program behaves unpredictably, creating the differing time display. But the software giant shows no signs of changing its product to please Mr Blair or the GeT team.
“You would have to ask Microsoft why their version of their own software doesn’t do what their published details say it will,” said Keith Mitchell, executive chairman of the London Internet Exchange (Linx), who is exasperated by the mismatch. “I don’t know why it doesn’t.”
The failure is another embarassment for the Government’s repeatedly proclaimed desire to make Britain an e-commerce capital. Last week the House of Lords passed the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Bill, which has been criticised by business and consumer groups for infringinging on civil liberties. A number of Internet companies have said they will relocate outside Britain to avoid the email and communications snooping that the RIP Bill allows.
The flaw in GeT is caused by differences between Microsoft’s version of a computer language called “Java” and the public standard created by Sun Microsystems. Microsoft is being sued by Sun for breaking its licence to use Java in the browser. No resolution is in sight.
The GeT team had hoped that their system - backed by a network of atomic clocks around the Internet - would rapidly become a reference point for all sorts of online transactions. which backs the scheme, suggested last week that it could be used to help people doing online share dealing, gambling and auctions: these, he said, could hinge on messages which would have to be time-stamped to an accuracy of less than a second from a central reference point. The Government’s “e-envoy” Alex Allan, said it would put Britain “at the forefront of Internet development”.
Instead, despite the non-appearance of GeT, electronic commerce has snowballed this year. Online gambling, sharedealing and auctions are all booming, used by millions of users worldwide.
“The world is muddling through,” insisted Mr Mitchell, “but the volume of transactions compared to their potential is still small.”
The same applies to GeT, though: its present network of atomic clocks could handle “tens of thousands” of users, said Linx. That compared with projects like Napster, which has an estimated 20 million people using its software.
The GeT project, meanwhile, was reluctant to publicise the release of the first version of its software in case too many people try to use it: there are fears that the atomic clocks would be unable to cope with a large volume of demands for the time.
Oh God, you have to believe that I was just astonished at how bad that was. And how fundamental the mistakes were.
Still, we don’t have that sort of idiocy any more in the civil service or government. Do we?
- These posts might be related (the database thinks..):
- How It Works...The Computer (vintage 1971) (14 July 2005; score: 38.25%)
- How two guys wrote the app that nearly became iTunes: the story of Audion (12 November 2004; score: 35.16%)
- And since everyone else is saying it... here's my "Apple on Intel" story. From April 2000 (6 June 2005; score: 31.52%)