CategoryStuff I’ve written

Posts with links to articles I’ve written around the place

‘Steve Jobs would walk in, say ‘this is far too big’ and walk out…’ MusicMatch, the iPod and the Dell DJ (repost)

This is a repost of the post that appeared a couple of days ago over on my other blog, The Rivals, where I’m asking questions, posting stuff and so on for the book I’m writing about Microsoft, Apple and Google – to be published by Kogan Page, delivery date July. Let me know what you think, and contribute too over on the other blog.

In case you’re interested in how the book will read, here’s something that I wrote last night. It’s looking at one of the key stages in the iPod’s development: the very early stages. So here’s some draft content. It’s got notes and repetitions and things that need to be tweaked, and the name of the main interlocutor has been removed because, well, that’s for the book, isn’t it?

Comments welcome (eg “you left out the bit where…” or “just as important in 2002 was…”). And I’m really interested in hearing from anyone who:
– worked for/with Microsoft around the time it was trying to get Windows Media Player/Audio/Janus implemented

– worked for/with Microsoft on its “online services” system – MSN – while it was being passed by Google in 2002-4 for revenues and market share: what did Microsoft think, internally? (I’d be just as interested in talking to someone who mentioned this to Microsoft as an ex-Microsoftie.)

– worked for/with Google pre-IPO who could talk about its thinking over whether it wanted to confront Microsoft.

And pretty much everything else on Microsoft/Apple/Google. Get in touch, or tell the people you know who know and ask them to get in touch.

Text starts below. Nice picture!

Photo by Olivier Bruchez on Flickr. Some rights reserved

>>>
The launch of the iPod in 2001 intrigued MusicMatch, and soon they were talking to Apple about the possibility of tweaking their software so that the millions of Windows users – a huge, untapped market for the iPod – could use it with their machine. At the time the iPod’s iTunes software only worked on Macs, and required a high-speed Firewire connection – which every Macintosh since 1999 had, but which was comparatively rare on Windows machines. Even so, enough had it (because the Windows PC market was so big and various) that it made sense for MusicMatch to offer it.

In July 2002, Apple introduced its second-generation iPod, with up to 20GB of storage – and introduced “iPod for Windows”, which used MusicMatch’s software to connect to Windows PCs.

BBB knew that the relationship with Apple was on borrowed time: “we could see that if it took off then they would write iTunes for Windows and steamroller us,” he recalls. But the experience was fascinating, and there was always the possibility that MusicMatch might be able to engineer some way to hold on to Apple – or perhaps to get Apple to hold onto it.

He had a number of meetings which Jobs attended: “generally he would walk in, say ‘this is shit’, and walk out,” he recalls. “Or he would say ‘this is far too big. It’s too bulky.’”

At the time the music business was in flux. The original incarnation of the file-sharing network Napster had been downed in the courts, but that had led to a hydra-headed decentralised sharing system called Gnutella, which had no central index as Napster had had. The record labels had nothing to aim at.

Since they were unable to shut down those networks, the record labels’ logical next move was to prevent music being ripped from CDs onto computers; that would prevent new songs being uploaded and shared, and should tamp down piracy. “Sony had had success in Japan with the MiniDisc format, which prevented you from copying songs back and forth,” said BBB. “Together with Sony Music, they seemed to have the formula. And Sony Electronics was huge in those days.” So the labels pressed for similar copy-prevention technology – known in the business as “digital rights management” software – to be included in music players and ripping software, and separately on CDs.

BBB adds his own context to the labels’ drive to get DRM instilled everywhere: “in the record business, everyone feels that they got screwed in their last deal. So in the next one they’re always looking to get the best possible deal. Songs will have different publishing rights in different countries. And the record labels and the publishers don’t see eye to eye. It’s a recipe for disagreement.” And for stalemate.

But Microsoft was listening to the record companies’ calls. It was a company full of skilled programmers who would be able to write software that would implement DRM to prevent copying. It quickly devised a strategy: using its Windows Media Audio format (which “independent” tests suggested gave better listening results and smaller files than MP3 at the same compression ratio). Files ripped on PCs using Windows Media Player, the default system, would be transferred with DRM onto digital music players so that the songs could not be copied onto another PC. That would tie the player to its owner’s computer. And uploading WMA files protected in that way to file-sharing networks would mean they wouldn’t work on the PCs of anyone else who downloaded them.

It was a brilliant strategy, except for two things. First, CD-ripping was still a minority sport limited to people who understood how to do it and what its purpose was; that meant they were specialists who were wise to Microsoft’s machinations especially the DRM,. (The high profile of Microsoft’s conviction in the antitrust case had eroded user trust that it was really acting in their best interests, rather than the interests of its partners.) They instead downloaded other programs – such as MusicMatch – which could play WMA files but could also rip songs into MP3 format.

The second problem was Microsoft overcooked the software, says BBB: “it was just too hefty for the hardware. It didn’t quite work right. There would be glitches, and the drivers didn’t quite work right, and the transfer was really slow.” That was because they relied on USB 1.1, rather than Firewire, connections. Firewire was about ?20-40 times faster[how much faster Firewire than USB] and USB 2.0, the faster standard that was comparable in speed, wouldn’t arrive until XXX[when USB 2 released?] and would take some time to become widespread in consumer electronics devices – particularly digital music players.

Then there was the industrial design aspect. BBB recalls seeing the prototype for the third-generation iPod during a discussion with Apple executives; Steve Jobs made an appearance – “he would kind of drift in and out”, is how he puts it – to pick the prototype up and criticise it for being too thick and then walk out.

A month of so later BBB was at the headquarters of Dell Computer in Austin, Texas. Dell was eager to get into this burgeoning market: it reasoned that it could use Microsoft’s software, and design its own hardware (as it did with PCs) but that unlike Apple it would be able to use its buying heft to drive down costs and so undercut Apple. The market was there for the taking.

BBB was handed a prototype for the Dell DJ player, which like the iPod used a 1.8” hard drive. “Jeez, this thing us HUGE!” he blurted out.

It was indeed noticeably deeper than Apple’s existing iPod, and substantially more than the forthcoming iPod – which MusicMatch knew about but about which its team had been sworn to secrecy, on pain of extremely costly legal action. “One of the Dell designers explained that that was because the Toshiba version of the hard drive had its connector on the side, and the Hitachi one had it on the bottom, but because they were dual-sourcing they could get the price down by 40 cents,” BBB recalls. “That was the difference in a nutshell. Apple was all about the industrial design and getting it to work. Dell was all driven by their procurement guys.”

[NUMBER IPODS SOLD PREV QUARTER]
[AUTOSYNC IN IPOD]

In September 2003 Apple launched its third-generation iPod, supplanting the one that Dell’s engineers had been comparing their design against. This one was notable for two features: four touch buttons just below the screen, instead of being embedded into the scroll wheel – a feature that was abandoned in the next generation as unwieldy – and a proprietary 30-pin dock connector on the bottom of the device. That allowed it to connect to a Firewire or USB 2.0 port, via a cable. (The buyer had to specify which cable they wanted.)
>>>

more to come….

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
Technology Editor

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.
//ends

—-

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
Technology Editor

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?

DRM? MP3? From the 2001 catalogues: Windows XP won’t be able to create high-quality MP3s

This story was first written for The Independent to appear in its 13 April 2001 edition. $2.50 for every copy of iTunes? One wonders if Apple will ever remove the facility to encode in MP3 from iTunes….

BY CHARLES ARTHUR

Technology Editor

Are you still listening to MP3s? Microsoft wishes you wouldn’t; and so does the record industry – the first because it would rather push its own, proprietary music-digitising format, and the latter because MP3s have, it claims, undermined the business through web sites such as Napster.

Although millions of Internet users have shown themselves to be hooked on the MP3 format, which can turn music tracks into small files that can be swapped and transmitted over the Net, Microsoft said that its next consumer operating system, Windows XP, due out in autumn, will “not include” the ability to produce high-quality MP3s.

That will severely restrict the listening quality of any music turned into an MP3 with that program. Instead, anyone trying to digitise music will be encouraged – not particularly subtly – to use Microsoft’s own “Windows Media Audio” (WMA) format.

Meanwhile RealNetworks [CORR RealNetworks] of Seattle, which was set up by a former Microsoft employee, is also pushing its proprietary RealPlayer format for digitising music.

The intent: to ease computer users to a position where they cannot send each other copies of music without paying for them. Both the Microsoft WMA and RealPlayer formats have “digital rights management” software, with copyright protection built in that will automatically police the use and sharing of music between computers. Only people who can show they have permission to listen to a WMA or RealPlayer file could listen to it on their computer – unlike MP3s, which can be swapped freely.

The WMA format does have the advantage that songs take up less room on disks. But with new technologies providing exponential increases in storage in all formats, that is unlikely to be a burning issue for consumers.

The intent of the two companies to have their own formats used by consumers belies the obvious popularity of MP3s, which are produced under an open standard: anyone can write a software program that will decode them, although software to create MP3s calls for a licence fee payable to the Fraunhofer Institute, which developed the format. That costs $2.50 for every copy of the software produced. For Microsoft, which hopes to sell millions of copies of XP, that could add up.

“We think at the end of the day, consumers don’t really care what format they [record] in,” said Dave Fester, a manager at Microsoft’s Digital Media Division. He said that despite the new restrictions, XP will do “a great job of making sure our player will play back MP3s.” But for new content that users might want to create, he says there “are clear advantages” to not using MP3.

Clear for Microsoft, and also for the record industry, which has been driven to distraction by the success of MP3s, particularly in the form of the Napster file-swapping service, which has allowed tens of millions of people to download literally billions of tracks without paying for them.

That is where consumers and the record industry diverge. “The industry doesn’t want [MP3] pushed, and Microsoft and RealNetworks don’t want it pushed. The consumer is going to eat what he’s given,” said David Farber, former chief technologist at the US’s Federal Communications Commission, who generally opposes the company.

He thinks that XP will be a major weapon in that. “When Microsoft decides to put something in their operating-system support, it becomes the standard,” says Mr. Farber, who against the company during the Microsoft antitrust trial. “The average consumer will use what comes on the disc when he buys the machine. They’re very effective in that way.”

But even those who wish MP3s would disappear allow that that might never happen. “It’s a little like the VHS tape,” said Steve Banfield, general manager at RealNetworks. “DVD is great, but VHS is ubiquitous and it isn’t going away anytime soon.”

–story ends–

Handheld computers: how it looked in September 2000

This piece first appeared in The Independent around September 2000. Given all the talk about some handheld(ish) computer released by some company or other, I thought it might be interesting to look back on…

A couple of notable phrases: “Microsoft’s failure in this market is unusual..” and at the end that “In the long term though functionality is sure to win out over form”. Debate among yourselves whether this was just history talking…

Handheld computers

BY CHARLES ARTHUR

Technology Editor

Handheld computers cannot do what most people want them to. This may seem surprising, given that millions of models using operating systems from Palm, Psion and Microsoft have been sold since 1984, when the British company Psion introduced its first handheld model.

But all are severely limited compared to the expectations placed upon them, which can be traced back to two sources: the 1960s TV series Star Trek, and the hit BBC radio series first broadcast in the 1970s, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy written by Douglas Adams. Only at the turn of the [21st] century does it look like people will soon be able to buy products with the facilities that people have been hankering after for decades.

The sight in the 1960s of William Shatner as Captain Kirk landing on alien planets and flipping out a palm-sized machine which could act as a radio, intelligent locator and general categoriser of knowledge had a subtle effect on the baby boomers’ belief about what computers of the future could and should do. It was voice-activated, and context- and location-sensitive. Similarly, in the radio series, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was actually the name of a computerised guidebook. It contained as much information as the galactic hitchhiker could need. While its indexing method was hopeless by any standards – the traveller had to look up a number in the index and enter that in order to get the corresponding entry (“so bad it could have been designed by Microsoft,” Adams later quipped) – it did create the belief that someday one could build a handheld machine able to hold all the knowledge not just in the world, but in the galaxy. And if aliens had them, why shouldn’t we?

The reality of the first retail products was rather different. The Psion 1, the brainchild of David Potter, was launched in 1984. It had a mighty 10K of non-volatile memory, an alphabetic keypad and a one-line 16-character LCD screen. Entering data was tedious. It would not have passed muster with Captain Kirk. However its descendants are now widely used by people in jobs requiring simple data collection, notably including traffic wardens.

In August 1993 Apple Computer launched its $700 Newton, which seemed at the time to promise at least some Star Trek functionality. It had handwriting recognition software able to “learn” your specific cursive style; there were promises of wireless communications and word processing.

It turned out to be an example of the computer industry’s occasional hubris. The software did learn your writing style, but often failed to interpret the letters correctly. The Newton was a flop (officially abandoned in 1998, but dead some years earlier) which poisoned the well for entrepreneurs in the US handheld market for some years. Bill Gates of Microsoft reckoned it put the market for such products back by two years. (Probaly an underestimate.) Palm Computing, founded by Jeff Hawkins and Donna Dubinsky in 1992, only managed to survive by selling itself to the modem maker US Robotics early in 1996.

However, in the UK and Europe Psion was thriving, and had developed its Psion Organiser 3 series, which had a miniature keyboard and inbuilt software including limited word processing, a calendar, contacts book and spreadsheet. It looked like a miniaturised version of a laptop computer, and proved very successful in its local market.

But on the west coast of the US, Hawkins and Dubinsky were developing a palm-sized machine which would have some, at least, of the ease of use both of Captain Kirk’s communicator and The Hitchhiker’s Guide. Hawkins envisaged a machine – which later became the Palm series – that would not stand alone, but would synchronise and back up its files with a standard PC. Thus it would not have to do everything; only have enough functionality to be useful while out of touch with the PC.

For data entry, he developed a shorthand cursive system called “Graffiti” which all Palm users have to learn. He tested the ergonomics of the product by carving a block of wood into a size and shape that he could carry comfortably around in his pocket. Function and form thus developed in parallel.

The Palm operating system was hugely popular, even though the basic machine only offered a calendar, address book, task (“To-do”) and notes list, plus a calculator and search system. Its success stemmed from its ability to coordinate with a PC; the openness of the operating system; and the coincidental rise of the Internet. The first point meant users could access their databases more easily than with tiny keyboards; the second that software developers could write programs to enhance the machine; and the third, that those programs could be widely and quickly distributed. Psion, with its EPOC operating system, had attracted some software developers but was held back by its European location (where Internet development lagged by a couple of years compared to the US) and lack of connectivity to PCs.

Launched early in 1996, the first Palm computer sold 1 million units in 18 months. In 1998 Hawkins and Dubinsky left with Ed Colligan, marketing head of Palm: they were dismayed by the slow working of the monolithic 3Com, which had bought US Robotics. They set up their own company Handspring, and licensed the Palm OS, which then had 80 per cent of the world market, served by 100,000 developers, while Psion and Microsoft scrabbled over the remainder.

Microsoft’s failure in this market is unusual, but seems to stem from its WindowsCE operating system (renamed and rebuilt as PocketPC in spring 2000) being too complex for the limited power of the machines. WindowsCE is used in petrol pumps and set-top boxes for decoding digital TV signals.

The future promises rapid change. Until 2000, handheld computers sat apart from mobile phones: an address list on one could not be transferred to another. As usability expert Jakob Nielsen noted, this is absurdly inconvenient. Mobile phones are no good for noting data (such as phone numbers) while you are in a call; but handhelds have been little use for making phone calls.

But Handspring especially has been forcing the pace, as its Visor machines, which use the Palm OS, include a slot called the “Springboard” where the user can plug in items such as a camera, memory module and – from autumn 2000 – a GSM modem.

That abruptly made the Handspring into the potential killer combination of handheld address list and mobile phone. Palm rapidly announced that by the end of 2000, all of its products would have wireless capability. Separately, IBM demonstrated a version of a Palm machine with an add-on board which gave it voice recognition capability, using the ViaVoice technology. Suddenly, the humble handheld was beginning to look like the machine which would be able to do everything.

But mobile phone makers and Psion are not finished. The so-called “third generation” of mobile phones, which will have high-speed data connections, were being designed in 2000, and the Symbian consortium (which uses the Epoc OS) won a contract to provide the OS for a number of phone companies.

What was still unclear at the end of 2000 was whether handheld computers would swallow mobile phones, or vice-versa. The handhelds had the functionality; the mobile phones had the usability. However the mobiles rapidly lost that edge as new WAP (Wireless Applications Protocol) phones attempting to squeeze Internet interactivity into a few lines of a monochrome LCD screen. In some respects, it was a step back to 1984. But the market’s explosive growth may mean that there is room for everyone to survive. In the long term though functionality is sure to win out over form.

end//

Just run that past me again, Professor Negroponte, about the talking doorknobs

From The Independent, November 13 1999:

See, I love it when you can come back to things after ten years. Count the things that have come true.

BY CHARLES ARTHUR
Technology Editor

Doorknobs that talk, computers that you swallow and phones that don’t ring if there’s nobody to answer them will all be reality within 10 years, according to Professor Nicholas Negroponte, director of the world-famous MIT Media Laboratory, and one of the best-known of Internet gurus.
Addressing the theme of how computing will pervade our lives, Professor Negroponte said: “You may wonder about how computing could possibly affect something like a doorknob. But if you think about it, an intelligent doorknob would be a really useful thing.
“You would not need keys: it could identify you by your fingerprints, and perhaps confirm your identity by asking a question – ‘What’s your mother’s maiden name?’ for example. Why would you need keys anymore?”
The smart doorknob could also accept parcel deliveries – and perhaps sign digitally for them; “and maybe it could let the dog out, and then let it back in while keeping out the other nine dogs following it.”
The technology required to do that is already sufficiently miniaturised, he said: such “embedded” systems could surround us. “We will have thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of embedded chips around us, all intercommunicating,” he predicted to an audience in London.
Professor Negroponte, author of the book “Being Digital”, espouses the view that anything which can be expressed as computer “bits” – such as words, images, video, designs, music – will eventually be transmitted in that form across the world, speeding up transactions and cutting costs. Human activity consists either of manipulating “atoms” – irreducibly physical objects – or “bits”, which contain ideas or symbols. His forecasts have been largely confirmed, especially by the move of music to new digital formats such as MP3 and the rise of electronic commerce.
As computers shrink and become pervasive over the next decade, the sort of information they can access will grow, he forecast. “I you want a really futuristic product for 10 years hence – you’ll have computers that you eat, one per day. It will contain devices and sensors which will record all your anatomical measurements, what’s going on inside you, and relay them to a black box that you wear on your belt. If it passes through you, no problem – swallow another.”
The value of such systems is evident if you consider the problems presently faced by doctors, he said: “Today, you go and say something is wrong, and you tell the doctor a story about how you felt perhaps 12 hours ago, which you can only imprecisely recall. From that, a doctor is meant to make a careful diagnosis and recommend a solution. This may be unfortunate timing after the Egypt Air crash, but I have wondered for a long time: why don’t we have black boxes? Then we could take them to the doctor, and they could read them to see what was wrong with us.”
Professor Negroponte also foresees telephone handsets becoming smarter. “Why do phones ring?” he wondered. “If there’s nobody there, no one will answer. Phones should be built smart enough to know if there’s nobody there. And if there is someone there, they should be able to answer them, like a good butler, and find out who is calling and why, and only then decide whether to get our attention.”
But there are still some giant steps to be made for the average user of computers, he admitted. “Who would have believed, ten years ago, that big segments of the population would spend between £1,000 and £2,000 on their own computers – and that those machines would reduce people to tears once or twice a week?”

How I saw what was going to happen to (Sir) Alan Sugar, and to the music industry in 2000

I thought you might enjoy these: the first appeared in The Independent in April 2000, and the second in July 2000.

Notable how many of these forecasts – for the music industry, notably not the book industry – have come true. Why, how farsighted of me to see things that were right in front of my face.

What I’ve always and consistently said is that the music industry should have worked with Napster: encouraged it to become a paid-for service (say, a monthly fee) and take a slice of revenue based on reproduction rights according to which songs are swapped.

Sort of what it’s ended up doing with Spotify, in fact – except this is nine years and millions of pounds/dollars of lost sales later.

But first, a little bit of Sugar to leaven your day. Remember, this ran in April 2000, and the article following in July 2000. Don’t want you getting the wrong idea.

BY CHARLES ARTHUR
Technology Editor

Alan Sugar really hoped that it would all turn out right yesterday. He even made a rare appearance on Radio 4’s Today programme, sounding uncomfortable answering questions about his Amstrad company’s new product.

Why? Because if Amstrad were a pop group, people would go about asking each other “What was the name of their last hit?”Alan Michael Sugar badly wants Amstrad (the name stands for AMS Trading, set up in 1968 when he was 21) to recapture the halcyon days of the 1980s.

Then, it seemed to dominate the consumer electronics market, making BSkyB’s satellite receivers, PCs which sold by the thousand, and a range of hi-fi and video systems which though never pretty (and sometimes not too reliable) had made the gruff, bearded Sugar into a household name and a media icon for the rough diamond who kept sparkling. The stock market loved him too: his company was worth £1.2 billion at its peak in 1988. This, for a man whose first electrical product (in 1970) was the £17.70 Amstrad 8000 amplifier which he later described aas “the biggest load of rubbish I’ve ever seen in my life” and the 1976 EX range of radio tuners with a meter to indicate the sound quality – which always showed as perfect, no matter what it really was.

The trouble is that lately when the Amstrad button has been pressed, it has showed up anything but perfect. The hit computers of 1984, which sold hundreds of thousands, could not succeed today. After failing to merge with the handheld computer maker Psion in 1996, in 1997 he spun off the company’s most effective side, the computer maker Viglen, leaving Amstrad to focus on consumer electronics. Since then it has not come remotely close to hitting the big time.

So it mattered to Amstrad that people should notice the introduction of a product that he promised would “bring e-mail to the mass market for the first time” and “become the all-in-one communications centre in the home”. Days ahead of the launch, City journalists had pronounced that it would be “the most important mass-market electronic product since [Amstrad] kick-started Britain’s personal computer market 15 years ago… a revolutionary electronic device for surfing the Web.”

But as it turned out, it was none of those things. For £80 you get the “em@iler”, a fixed (rather than mobile) phone which will send and receive email and faxes. There is no subscription charge for the email service – but you will have to submit to adverts beamed to the phone’s small screen which you will not be able to turn off.

Attractive? Perhaps not when compared to BT’s Easicom 1000, launched last March. It costs £80. It sends and received email. You can also use its small screen to browse the Web – which you can’t with the Amstrad em@iler. BT claims to have sold 80,000 in the past year and expects to sell another 220,000 in the next 12 months. And you won’t get ads. Furthermore, these days one would not expect to have to pay for Internet access, since there are hundreds of subscription-free Internet service providers.

But forget all that; what did the City think? Unfortunately, the City hated it. “I can’t get excited about it,” a market-maker in Amstrad shares said after the initial stock-market announcement. Amstrad’s stock promptly lost one-sixth of its value, ending the day at 505p, after months when it had gradually risen.

So does this mean the end for one of the barrow boy legends of consumer electronics? Has Alan Sugar lost his magic touch?

When it comes to the Internet, Mr Sugar has always seemed cautious in an area where one must be a risk taker. A year ago he wrote in a newspaper column that the Internet revolution “could all go pear-shaped” – which could still come true, but is not the ideal stance from which to develop market-winning products. The development cycle for new Internet consumer products is now measured in weeks rather than months or years.

Mr Sugar remains confident. Millions of British homes do not have a computer or modem. He hopes to sell a million, and thinks that with the adverts, “If we run 20 ads a month and if we’re able to charge somebody 15p (per user) then we are in the money.” But if nobody buys the phones, then the money will stay resolutely away. The quality button may say that it is perfect. But underneath, the truth may be rather different.
end//

—-

BY CHARLES ARTHUR
Technology Editor

Unlike most of the people you will meet in these pages, Shawn Fanning never intended to achieve global domination. But also unlike most of the people here, he has truly managed to threaten an entire $10 billion global industry, without ever meaning to. If ever there were an accidental revolutionary, it’s Fanning. Though of course you won’t be surprised to hear that the catalyst for his position is the Internet.

Until late 1998 he was just another computer studies student at North West University in Boston. He had never written any software for the Windows operating system, but Fanning got interested when his roommate began complaining about the problems of using his PC to track down MP3 files – which compress CD-quality music into small, downloadable files – from Websites, and saw the chance to try his hand at his chosen profession.

To help his friend out he wrote a program called Napster (based on his Internet nickname, itself derived from his short-cut hairstyle). It was his first real programming challenge, one on which he worked for days at a time – often not pausing for sleep.

Once completed, and released onto the Internet in January 1999, it was a piece of magic. It can tell you what MP3s an individual user connected to the Net has on their computer – and start copying it from that machine if you want. No payment necessary or requested, either for the Napster program itself or, more importantly, for carrying out the download.

If you have a standard home modem, it will take you between 7 and 10 minutes to download a three-minute MP3-compressed song. A standard 45-minute album would require a few hours. Total cost to a British user, a couple of pounds.

Compared to a CD, there’s no discernible loss in sound quality: the MP3 algorithm is designed to keep frequencies that the ear is sensitive to, and ignore unimportant ones.

The big difference of course is that you haven’t paid £10 or more to a record company or retailer for the music, which you can now listen to endlessly and download into a palm-sized portable MP3 player, essentially a microcomputer dedicated to replaying MP3 files.

It’s not surprising that two things have happened. The music industry is having a collective heart attack at seeing its future revenue streams (which it insists are essential for developing and marketing new bands and artists) cut off; and computer users around the world are taking to Napster with delight. No more having to pay what they see as inflated prices for songs. In fact, no more paying at all, unless you want to spend the money to get the CD with lyrics, liner notes, photographs and the rest.

Clearly, the two business models cannot coexist. Either the record industry gets paid when you take possession of a track, or it has to find some new way of collecting its money.

Just in case you’re thinking it won’t happen to your company, consider that this is a key example of what happens when a conventional business based on making things which carry information collides with the Net. (The book industry faces a similar challenge; only the fact that reading from a screen is 50 per cent slower than from a printed page is preserving it from a Napster-like destruction at present.)

The other key lesson is about what succeeds on the Net. Even by Internet standards, Napster has been a phenomenon, with a user base of up to 10 million who have downloaded it since Fanning released the first version. And that number is growing, the company claims, by between 5 and 25 per cent each week. That makes its user base roughly equal to that of AOL, the world’s biggest Internet service provider. (AOL users can use Napster, just like anyone with Net access.)

Yet there is no business involved in Napster: no money changes hands, not even for the program, which is free. So what’s the lesson? It is this: on the Internet, if you can find something which lets consumers communicate with each other without mediation, it will explode. Imagine if you had been the person who invented email. Napster isn’t quite that, but among the younger generation, it’s not far off.

In December 1999 the music business took its first step against Napster. The Recording Industry Association of America, which represents the big labels, sued the company for “contributory and vicarious copyright infringement”. That suit will finally come to court a week from today [WED] in a Northern Californian court.

Even before that, Napster had been sued successfully by the heavy metal group Metallica (ironically, Fanning’s favourite group) and the rap artist Dr Dre. They forced the company to prevent hundreds of thousands of fans from using its servers. (Many of those fans, it is thought, simply wiped all traces of Napster from their PCs and then downloaded a fresh copy of the program and logged in again under a different name.) Metallica fans were, to put it politely, annoyed. Bad PR? Absolutely, says Alan McGee, discoverer of the supergroup Oasis. McGee sold half of his Creation Records company to Sony but then got out completely last year, tired of working under a multinational. “”How stupid of Metallica to in effect sue 300,000 of their fans,” he remarked after the case.

How does Fanning react to all this? With multi-million dollar lawuits looming he is presently incommunicado, at least as far as the press is concerned. But his opinions remain consistent through months of interviews. Is it intended to destroy the music industry? “It was… to create a music community,” he told ZD Net in March. “I thought it was pretty exciting just in terms of the technology.”

But isn’t it theft, what all those people are doing? “I can’t really discuss that,” he told the Observer in May. He thought the service would benefit independent bands without record label deals who could make their MP3s available for download without going through intermediaries such as MP3.com, a commercial Website which very definitely does store MP3s – and recently had to pay the record industry $40m in a settlement which allows it to play MP3s of known artists through its site.

The MP3.com decision was a small chink of light for the RIAA’s members. In 1998 it lost a significant case against Diamond Multimedia, which makes the Rio MP3 handheld player – effectively a Walkman for the MP3 generation. The RIAA sued Diamond and lost. “The RIAA suing us was the best piece of publicity we ever got,” says Nick Caddick, Rio’s senior European marketing manager.

The RIAA lost because, as happened before when the copyright industries sued over cassette recorders and VCRs, a judge ruled that there was a legitimate use for the products – making your own recordings of your own work. Because that legitimate use exists, the product cannot be banned, even though it can be used to abuse copyright, for example by making copies of records. It would be up to the record companies to police anyone making copies. They capitulated.

Similarly, Sony was sued by the film and TV companies when it introduced the Betamax VCR in the 1970s; the same argument was used and prevailed.

One of the arguments the company (formed last summer as Fanning was persuaded by his family to try to capitalise on his invention; in May it received $15m of venture capital funding) is putting forward in its defence is the same one: you could use it to give people access to non-copyrighted work. The fact that millions of people don’t use it that way really isn’t Napster’s fault, because it does not control what is downloaded. Nor does it store any music.

Not only does it have heavyweight arguments in its favour; Napster also has a heavyweight lawyer: David Boies, better known for his remarkable demolition job of Microsoft for breaking antitrust laws: he was the lead lawyer for the US Department of Justice. He won that case. Now he is again, in a sense, representing millions of consumers against powerful forces ranged against them.

Boies, who is in private practice, filed Napster’s defence against the RIAA case earlier this month. Besides various affidavits from members of the (independent) record industry declaring how pleased they are with Napster, he put up a number of independent planks on which the defence will rest. One is that the US’s 1992 Audio Home Recording Act (AHRA) allows individuals to share a song with as many people as they want, as long as it is a noncommercial use. (The RIAA riposted last Friday that the AHRA specifically mentions “a household and its normal circle of friends, rather than the public.”)

But Napster is also hitting back, defending itself by alleging that the record industry is acting in an anti-trust manner: by blocking new means of distributing music (that is, online and directly between users) the industry is misusing its copyright privileges, Boies said; and under (an obscure) antitrust doctrine, that would mean the industry cannot sue Napster. (The RIAA was silent. Few people argue antitrust law with Boies.)

The RIAA’s principal riposte last Friday was that Napster “uses euphemisms like ‘sharing’ to avoid the real issue. The truth is, the making and distributing of unauthorised copies of copyrighted works by Napster users is not ‘sharing’, any more than stealing apples from your neighbour’s tree is ‘sharing’.”

The music industry has a basic problem with the whole Napster model. But in part that is because it has been so amazingly slow to realise what was happening in the digital landscape.

Besides the lawsuits, music business people like to deny that the public really likes MP3s. Last week, Nick Raymonde, the A&R (artists and repertoire) director at BMG Music, one of the biggest music companies, said in an interview that MP3 “is not a particularly good format technically” and “I don’t really see a lot of kids walking around with MP3 players yet”. As for Napster, he thinks it “a nuisance. I’d rather go and buy a CD. I don’t use it at all because, if it was a band I liked, I’d feel as if I was stealing from them.” One wonders who has it totally wrong: Mr Raymonde, or the millions of Napster users. There’s also the fact that the industry claims furiously that Napster is already depressing CD sales (one recent study claimed that CD sales within a few miles of US universities, where Napster is most commonly used, have fallen; the company riposted with studies showing rising sales.)

Belatedly, the record industry is moving towards an accommodation with the millions of people who are already online. But its problem is that while those moves might have made sense a few years ago, today they look retrograde. For instance, earlier this week EMI began offering downloads of work by Pink Floyd (including its seminal Dark Side of the Moon), Frank Sinatra and rap stars NWA, among 100 other albums and 200-plus singles.

Great; except that you’ll need a particular program to hear the music, and another program to make sure you’re obeying your download licence, and you won’t just be able to swap it around between computers (if you have more than one) and MP3 players. Basically it’ll be a pain.

But the real kicker is this: you’ll still have to pay for it. EMI intends to sell the digital music, via a new set of online retailers, for as much as the physical album.

An EMI spokeswoman said, “We want to learn what the users want, how they find the user experience.” Actually, it’s right down the digital road, at www.napster.com. You get it for free and then you decide if you’d like the physical CD too.

The amazingly slow-moving and inept reaction of the industry led Carolyn Kantor, senior vice-president of MP3.com, to say that “the music industry is a $40 billion industry locked in a $10 billion body.” By which she means that by resisting new forms of distribution that resemble Napster, it is cutting itself off from huge potential sources of revenue. “Progress is about embracing new forms of digital music distribution,” she told a London conference on the future of music in May. “Look at the film industry – it has found a way to take one product through a huge life cycle, where you pay to see a film, then you can see the film as pay-er-view on cable, then you can hire a video, and finally it’s on TV for free. But the music industry hasn’t created a model that let them make their money beyond the first release of the product.”

If Napster wins its case, the effect on the industry will be dramatic. MP3 sharing will become endemic. There is no technical way to prevent CD tracks from being turned into MP3s. Internet access is speeding up – so that in a few years, downloading a 5 Mb file (ie a four-minute MP3 song) will take less than a minute. That’s faster than it takes to actually transform the CD track into an MP3, meaning that using Napster will be preferable to buying the CD. The record industry’s only recourse would be to sue every Napster user individually. As McGee might observe, what a brilliant way to piss off your customers.

“In the short term, the industry badly needs some transparency about its prices,” admits one music executive, who asked to stay anonymous. “People are going to want to know how much the artist is getting if they buy a song, rather than download it. For the fans, that might work. But as long as all you see is the single price tag, and you don’t know how much goes to the record shop and how much to the record label and how much to the artist, you assume nothing goes to the musicians.” That attitude has been fostered by artists such as Courtney Love and Chuck D (of rap group Public Enemy) who have publicly declared that it is the record labels who are the pirates, not the fans or Napster. A growing number of bands are also using MP3s – and some even using Napster – to distribute some of their music, aiming to make money from live performances, merchandise and spin-offs. The music becomes something you just do. It’s a future-oriented way of making money that the record industry seems calamitously unready for.

Napster too is preparing itself for the future: last week it announced it had hired – “stolen” was the nose-tweaking word it preferred – an executive from one of the record companies that is suing it. Keith Bernstein started as operations director on Monday, joining from Seagram-Universal, the world’s biggest record label and a sworn enemy of Napster, which earlier this year hired an A&M legal affairs executive.

For yes, what if the RIAA wins the decision? “We’ll appeal,” said a Napster PR. “There will be a lengthy appeals process. You know, these things can just go on and on. We’re going to be around for years.” The question now is, will the record industry?

end///

Tim Carron Brown pleads guilty in Bournemouth Crown Court

Welcome Tim Carron Brown watchers! We bring you news!

After my various posts and stories over the years about Tim Carron Brown – you know, the guy who seemed to have the bad luck to always be at the top of companies that couldn’t quite keep ahead of the maw of liquidation, bankruptcy or simple vanishment – we bring you news from Bournemouth.

You’ll recall that he had been charged with… oh, let’s bring it up again:

Timothy Carron Brown, the company director behind the collapsed television production house Iostar and the £43m dotcom disaster Efdex, is due to go on trial for cheating the public revenue and forgery.

The prosecution is being brought by HM Revenue and Customs, and involves four companies of which Carron Brown has been a director, including Omedian, Anstruther Management, Company TV and Second Sight.

Carron Brown was amongst those blamed for the failure of Iostar, the television company which channel Five’s newly appointed chairman and chief executive Dawn Airey briefly joined as chief executive last year.

(Or take a break to read some more background on Iostar’s vanishment.)

He has now been charged with 13 offences, including two counts of cheating the public revenue, four counts of being knowingly a party to the carrying on of a business for a fraudulent purpose, six counts of forgery and one count of using a forged instrument.

When Carron Brown was contacted by the Telegraph at the time (May 2008), he denied all the charges.

Hard to know quite what changed his mind in the interim – was it the people who had formerly worked with him at Iostar who were prepared to be witnesses for the prosecution? Was it the long interviews with the police? – but on Friday he pleaded guilty in the Crown Court. (I’ve had this from two entirely separate sources, so I’m happy to report it. Anyone can point me to the Bournemouth docket, I’ll link.)

I’m still intrigued by the comment that was left on this blog on May 13 by “Piers Diacre”:

While it may seem that a lot of people are snivelling about Tim Carron-Brown, mostly they seem to be ex-employees who had willingly signed on to work for his companies. So what if the business plan did not work or was ahead of its time or was never going to work. At least Tim had the guts to try and the ability to get many of his ideas at least in to launch mode.

Yeeeess. Some things do not and cannot fly, though. Launch mode doesn’t work on cars, for example. Iostar never seems to have had a sustainable business, even if its business plan or model was, in theory, great. That’s the difference. I think that’s why Dawn Airey departed muttering about lawyers and suing people. My, she was angry.

“Piers” again:

It may be that a lot of the fault is, but surely there are others who share part of the blame – the usual suspects – disingenuous directors,greedy investors will be the first to blame the man in charge.

If Tim is blessed with one thing, it is a very fine business brain indeed – without it he would never have been in a position to get the backing for the three or four businesses he tried to start in the .com space.

I am happy to have him as a friend and he is been a very good friend for many years.

That’s good to hear. However, I understand there may be others who feel, how shall I say it, rather differently about TCB. Such as Peter Teal, who wrote a book called Crooks & Cronies, over which TCB sued (successfully).

If you want to leave a comment (no libel please: facts only) then please do; please leave your email because I intend to follow up on this on a bigger forum. Alternatively, just email me – charles.arthur@gmail.com – with details. If you want or need to remain off the record, that’s fine.

Why dogs need pills for psychological problems: ‘cos they’re not allowed on the couch

Earlier today Ben Goldacre tweeted: “Treat your dog for separation anxiety with a pill: amazingly this is not a spoof” – and a link to Reconcile, aka fluoxetine hydrochloride, which “helps manage separation anxiety”.

Fluoxetine hydrochloride? Oh, yes, you may know it as Prozac and various other trade names.

This though rang a loud bell with me. I’d written about it ages ago, and said so. Looked it up on the database I keep on my machine of all the stories that I wrote at the Indie. Oh yes, there it is, back in April 1998.

It is on the web, but the version on Findarticles seems to have mated at some stage with something about Northern Ireland – not to any good effect.

So here’s the original article that I wrote and which appeared in The Independent on April 16, 1998. Enjoy.

by Charles Arthur, Science and Technology Editor

With unhappy adults delighted by Prozac and hyperactive children calmed by Ritalin, drugs companies have discovered a new sector in need of pharmacological help to get through the day: dogs.

With fewer dogs actually working, and more and more people leaving them behind while they go off to work, a growing number (of the animals) are believed to suffer from “separation anxiety” – a psychological fear that they have been abandoned.

But since most dogs have problems with conventional psychiatric treatment – they find talking difficult, and are forbidden from lying on the couch – the Swiss pharmaceuticals company Novartis has stepped in.

Yesterday after a decade of effort the company received Europe-wide approval for a drug to treat canine separation anxiety – a problem that it claims affects up to 15 per cent of dogs of all breeds. Some vets say the problem has afflicted the animals since humans first domesticated wolves tens of thousands of years ago, though it has only been formally recognised for about 20 years.

“It might sound strange that dogs would suffer from anxiety,” commented Beverley Cuddy, managing editor of Dogs Today magazine yesterday. “But a dog is a pack animal. If you keep a single dog it regards you as its ‘pack’. Then it gets very upset when your routine changes – say if you start going to work. The dog doesn’t feel able to cope on its own and becomes terrified at being alone.” Such dogs will howl, chew furniture, soil the house and even mutilate themselves.

Novartis’s solution is twofold: a drug treatment lasting between 60 and 90 days, costing about 40 pence per day; and behavioural treatment, which is free (but comes with the drug). With 6.5 million dogs in the UK alone, the potential market is huge.

Chemically the drug, named Clomicalm, works in exactly the same way as Prozac: it sustains high brain levels of serotonin – the neurotransmitter associated with a “happy” state of mind. “The advantage is that it makes the dog more accessible to behavioural treatment,” said the spokesman. “The owner should have guidelines and rules for how they treat the dog before and after they arrive home.”

Ms Cuddy said, “This isn’t a miracle drug – the main problem tends not to be the dog, but the owner, whose lifestyle perhaps doesn’t support a pet.”

Timothy Carron Brown taken to court? But what happened next? (Updated)

(Note for new readers: this story has moved on substantially. Read here and here: Carron Brown was sentenced to two and a half years, of which half was to be served in jail. Now read on.)

Hey, wait, what’s this? A story from the Telegraph from May, brought to my attention by a little bird, about Tim (or Timothy) Carron-Brown (or perhaps Tim Carron Brown; hyphen may be optional). (If you can’t think why I’m on about him, read the background.)

It seemed that the Revenue weren’t impressed:

Timothy Carron Brown, the company director behind the collapsed television production house Iostar and the £43m dotcom disaster Efdex, is due to go on trial for cheating the public revenue and forgery.

The prosecution is being brought by HM Revenue and Customs, and involves four companies of which Carron Brown has been a director, including Omedian, Anstruther Management, Company TV and Second Sight.

Carron Brown was amongst those blamed for the failure of Iostar, the television company which channel Five’s newly appointed chairman and chief executive Dawn Airey briefly joined as chief executive last year.

He has now been charged with 13 offences, including two counts of cheating the public revenue, four counts of being knowingly a party to the carrying on of a business for a fraudulent purpose, six counts of forgery and one count of using a forged instrument.

Carron Brown has not yet been asked to enter a plea, but when contacted by this newspaper he denied the charges. The case has been sent to Bournemouth Crown Court for a hearing on May 28.

Three of the companies involved in the case are either dissolved, in liquidation, or in the process of being struck off the Companies House register.

Called by the paper, Carron Brown denied the charges. But what happened when it came to court? I can’t find anything pinned around Bournemouth (apart from someone with the same surname called Laura who seems to be a hypnotherapist. Any relation, Laura?

And just a little more Carron Brownness: this intriguing article from Marketing Week in 2007, which is unsigned, begins:

From what I can recall of Carron Brown, who was about 24 at the time, he was a preternaturally gifted salesman with the gravitas of someone twice his age. Now that he has reached twice that age, he has been exposed as a bit of a fraud (in the eyes of those who have participated in his financial schemes at least). I hasten to add, because M’Learned Friend is tapping me insistently on the shoulder, that when I say ‘fraud’ I mean – of course – not all he was cracked up to be rather than a criminal fraudster. I have no reason to believe that, in acting unwittingly as the financial author of a series of entrepreneurial disasters, he has actually done anything fraudulent. Simply created a lot of misery.

Yes, I’ll say that as well – I’ve got no evidence he’s a fraud. He simply seems to have repeatedly been involved in companies that didn’t manage to come close to achieving what was promised of them.

Further: he has a LinkedIn profile (giving his location as Dorchester), although he doesn’t seem to have updated his website with any news – we’d have expected something triumphant about seeing off the Inland Revenue by now, wouldn’t we?

Then again, his LinkedIn profile describes him as “not currently open to receiving Introductions or InMail™.” Awww. And I can’t find any web trace of Omedian. Anyone doing better on this one?

And also, what’s happening to Dawn Airey’s lawsuit which I thought she might be taking up?

Update 3 November: Tim Carron Brown – or someone who claimed the name – called me this morning and said there were “errors” in the original story in The Independent in 2000. He seemed to find search engines’ indexing powers not to his liking. He said he would send an email.

I gave my email address. I await developments.

My review: the Mad Men series on DVD

If you didn’t catch Mad Men while it was on TV, then it’s now out on DVD. Through my relationship with Stuart, the brains behind the film/DVD/games review site Screenjabber (he’s production editor on the Tech section..) I got to review Mad Men, the DVD set.

Me likee. A lot:

instead of wilfully confusing us (thanks, Lost), losing us in wonk-speak (that’s you, West Wing) or featuring superhumans whose origins are imponderable (hello, Heroes), Mad Men — the self-named advertising kings of Madison Avenue at the start of the 1960s— deals with a time that we already know about. Or think we do.


Unlike the people of Lost and Heroes, where we’re as confused as them, and the Sopranos, who are far more ruthless than any of us could ever be, we think we have power over the Mad Men: we know what will happen to them. But as Matt Weiner — a former writer with the Sopranos, who had the pilot episode sitting around for five years waiting to get it greenlighted — shows, though we know generality (Kennedy will win!) we don’t know what happens to individuals.


Some men, it’s reported, don’t understand Mad Men (no guns, no killing, no car chases); but take the time to immerse yourself in its subtleties — [Don] Draper, who creates the aspirations and slightly false realities of advertising is himself the product of aspiration and a false reality he has created; and our picture of him as the hero is shattered by his obvious infidelity. Nothing is what it seems.


That’s not to say there aren’t some things for the guys. Most of all, as we move through the series, the clothes that the office’s queen bee secretary Joan (Christina Hendricks) wear go from a iridiscent green dress that says “Kindly notice my bosom” to one with orange spirals that lead to her nipples — which could be subtitled “HAVE YOU SEEN MY BREASTS YET?” It is the most extraordinary outfit you’ll see on TV — until the next series, I guess.

The other thing that will be very interesting in the next series (does anyone have a date when it will start airing) is how they’ll play the Kennedy thing – given that some time around then, you’ll know the result of the new presidential election. Obama = Kennedy? Or will our modern “Nixon” triumph instead?

Fabulous series, though.