10th > December > 1999 Archive
Big Q found in Small Magellanic Cloud
One of our regular readers has pointed out that Compaq's reach is far wider than anyone first thought. As evidence that The Big Q can buy whoever they like, not just for a week, like The Register, but, for practical purposes, eternity, he points to this picture which proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Mike Capellas and the triumvirate behind him have wide-ranging influence. The re-branding of Compaq now seems complete, and, as the blurb below the picture says, The Big Q is the result of the death explosion of a massive star... ®
Sun hits back at Gartner report
A Gartner note warning of quality control problems with CPUs in high-end servers has been rubbished by Sun Microsystems. Ian Meakin, director of Sun's data centre operations in the UK, said that the note Gartner sent on the 16 November, describing quality control problems with 400MHz, 4MB CPUs, said that the information was misleading and out of date. He said: "The report suggests this is a widespread problem when it isn't. They [Gartner] talked to 10 customers and extrapolated the issue from those conversations." He continued: "We don't have a quality or reliability issue at all." Further, said Meakin, Sun is no longer shipping 400MHz 4MB CPUs, it currently supplies 400MHz 8MB parts, so the report is out of date. He admitted that Sun had identified some problems in the last calendar year but said that those related to third party products and his company had worked both with its customers and its suppliers to fix those problems. "Like any manufacturer, Sun does take quality control very seriously indeed," he said. "We have shipped 400,000 systems and there's been a miniscule amount of problems. This should be put in that context." One end user, who wished to keep his name and company out of the rumble, commented: "I note that Sun doesn't go on about the fibre channel array issues in its refutation of the problems. And besides, I counted 30 sites in my company (that's only in Europe) where the a5x00 will be or has been changed; the problem is that "miniscule" is too much, where the DR decisions already made imply that two hours out of action and we're out of business." ® See also Gartner warns of Sun server realiability
Sony to become 'web department store'
More flesh was added yesterday to the bones of Sony's scheme to dominate the digital world, when company president Nobuyuki Idei announced plans to set up an Internet-based bank, the first stage in Sony's plan to become a "web department store". Watch out, Amazon et al.
Quebec menaces Sony and Nintendo over bad languages
The Canadian province of Quebec is insisting that commercial Web sites aimed at people living there must be in French, although English is also allowed. The latest move by Quebec language minister Louise Beaudoin is give Nintendo and Sony until New Year's Eve to produce a French language version of their Web site, or be fined. Neither Sony nor Nintendo were commenting - but perhaps they didn't understand the message. "The law must be applied," Beaudoin said, but her heritage counterpart in the Canadian federal government claims that Beaudoin's Office de la Langue Française lacks jurisdiction over the Internet, although there will be no intervention unless a case gets to court. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has also declared the Internet to be a regulation-free zone, subject only to the usual kinds of exceptions. It's only commercial sites that the Québecois must see in French, because Article 52 of the French Language Charter mandates that all catalogues, brochures, leaflets, and commercial directories must be in French. Dealer Micro-Bytes Logiciels of Pointe Claire was intimidated into taking down most of its site after a threat of a fine, even though it was in the process of producing a bilingual site. The Quebec government is also pretty straight-laced about sex, and insisted on the removal of some Web pages from the Quebec government-backed Internet site Printemps du Quebec that showed different facets of Quebec life. But the "Sexual Guide for Virgins and Beginners" (in French) by a virtual character called Webinette, the web mistress, proved too much. ®
Dell sells 600MHz PIII system for $103,324
Direct PC vendor Dell was offering a bargain of sorts on its Web site yesterday. For a mere $103,324, you could pick up a Dell Precision workstation 210. The machine came with a 600MHz Pentium III chip, 128MB of memory, a Diamond Viper V770D video card with 32MB graphics memory, a 27GB Hard Drive, Windows NT 4.0 (but no upgrade to Windows 2000), a 19-inch Monitor, a 3Com Ethernet card, a CD-RW Drive (24x read speed), a 104 Key Keyboard a Logitech 2 button scroll mouse, a 1.44M Floppy, and three year's warranty. If you couldn't afford to hand over $103,324 all at once, Dell was offering you a preferential 36-month business lease at only a mere $3,192 a month. At prices like these, why shop elsewhere? ®
Intel making 800MHz-capable Pentium IIIs
Intel is already making Pentium III processors capable of operation at over 800MHz, it emerged yesterday. Speaking at the International Electron Devices conference, Chipzilla engineers described the modification the company has made to its 0.18 micron CMOS process. Afterwards, Tahir Ghani, an Intel senior engineer, said the company had "made Pentium III devices but not shipped yet", according to EE Times. He then said: "Some devices have shipped, but we haven't announced that yet... The clock frequency is better than 800 MHz." All of which sounds like Chipzilla has the things out there and is ready to hoist the 'runs at 800MHz' flag just before arch-rival AMD gets there. The modification, called the notched-poly process, essentially squeezes transistor gate widths down from 0.13 microns to 0.1 microns by cutting a notch in the gate's polysilicate base. And not only is the transistor smaller, but its electrical properties are improved, leading to reduced current leakage and a higher drive current. In practical terms, that means the chip can operate at a lower voltage than a regular 0.18 micron CPU. Intel's team wouldn't say how notched-poly has been added to the CMOS process, but they did say the modification required no extra steps in the fabrication process -- "it's cost-free", said Ghani. ®
IPO makes VA Linux instant $10bn company
Yesterday's VA IPO turned into the biggest Linux hit yet, with the company's stock at one point zooming 800 per cent over the debut price of $30 a share. And that $30 had been a revision of a revision - VA Linux Systems' offer price had already been yanked up a couple of times in anticipation of greater demand than, er, anticipated. The stock fell back slightly (relatively speaking, anyway) later, but still left lucky company operatives dripping with virtual lucre. VA closed with a market cap nudging $10 billion, CEO Larry Augustin's stake and options make him worth $1.7 billion, and company director, general-purpose guru and "corporate conscience" Eric Raymond tells us in Linux Today this morning that he's now worth around $36 million. Eric* says it won't change his life, and anyway, he's the least rich of the director shareholders. VC backers Sequoia are the most rich, and Intel is sitting fairly pretty on a reasonable-sized VA share pile too. But when Linux IPOs are getting to this kind of level we're clearly approaching the point where worries about the bubble bursting are going to start to emerge, in the same way as they did with Internet stocks. Sure, Internet IPOs still tend to do well, but there's a general consensus that a some point there's going to be a reckoning, and the bigger Linux IPOs get, the sooner scepticism will start to set in. A quick reality check of VA, for example, gives us net revenues to 29th October of just under $15 million, and an operating loss of over $10 million. Eric Raymond alone is "worth" more than the company's total net assets, according to the balance sheet. So how exactly (or indeed, even approximately) will a company of this size justify a valuation in the region of $10 billion? How indeed... * Eric, bless him, says he might get a new mobile phone, a flute, cable Internet access and "maybe a nice hotrodded match-grade .45 semi for tactical shooting." Ah, the youth of today... Once upon a time the nouveau riche destroyed themselves in orgies of drugs, smashed hotel rooms and Rolls Royces in swimming pools. ®
Site News Register Sherlock plug-in updated
Version 1.0.2 of The Register's Sherlock plug-in is now available. Sherlock's auto-update still appears to damage the download file, so we suggest you visit our main Sherlock page here to download the update. ®
Argos shuts website in run-up to Xmas
Argos has shut its website because it is snowed under with a backlog of orders. The leading catalogue-based British retailer pulled its site on Wednesday afternoon and won't open up again until Monday. Unfortunately, that only leaves three shopping days before the cut-off for guaranteed delivery in time for Christmas.
Second free call trial kicks off at X-Stream
The X-Stream Network launched another toll-free Internet access trial yesterday although it warned users that they could experience problems with the service if demand outstrips capacity. Greg Sukornyk, chief executive of X-Stream, refused to say how many people the service would be able to handle. Instead, he said it would be available on a "first come first served basis". If the trail is oversubscribed then it's possible many people could be frustrated by being unable to access the service. X-Stream launched a similar 0800 trial in March but was criticised by users who were unable to log onto the service. In a prepared statement, Paul Myers, MD of X-Stream UK, said: "Our competitors have generally added a catch to free calls and access -- usually requiring a change from the consumer's existing telephone operator, meaning inconvenience and hassle to the user. "X-Stream's business model and technology allows us to provide free Internet access 24/7 without associated call charges or any other requirements or restrictions. "The ethos of The X-Stream Network is to drive the market in the interest of the consumer. "BT's Surftime is too little, too late. We're offering free access without call charges because we know that's what Internet users want." The service will be funded by advertising and e-commerce revenues. ® Related Stories Internet free call free-for-all Free Web access every weekend Permanent free Web access plan unveiled Phone exchanges blamed for failing Web connections ISP launches toll-free Net access for the sleepless
Eudora Pro for free – but with built-in adverts
Qualcomm is offering to upgrade the 16 million users of its Eudora Light email packages to a new, full-featured "Pro" version - in exchange for their agreeing to view a series of advertisements, and use the package in "sponsored mode." This is to be one of three options available to users of the new converged Eudora, which is due to be issued in Q1 next year. Previously Qualcomm made Eudora Light available via free download, and charged for the full-featured version, Eudora Pro. The new program will come in a single version that can be set to Light mode as the operational equivalent of the current Light, a paid for version which operates as the full product with no ads, and the sponsored version, which gives you full product with ads. Qualcomm's expectation no doubt is that the people currently using the free version will be willing to allow the software to "display one at a time a series of static onscreen advertisements that do not interfere with the user's email workspace." But just to be on the safe side, the free download installs in this mode, so users will have to put up with it, get around to downgrading to Light, or get around to paying up. As further encouragement it appears the Light mode will "include a sponsor image or logo, but no rotating advertising." The forthcoming Eudora program does at least have the virtue of giving the user a choice. But Microsoft, it would appear, has decided to go the whole way and demonstrate that there's no such thing as a free browser. Version 5.01 of Internet Explorer upgrades Outlook Express while it's about it, and if you use Outlook to access a Hotmail account an advertising pane appears at the bottom of the screen, and displays Hotmail advertising. There doesn't appear to be a supported method for turning this off. ®
KPN beats France Telecom to E-Plus Mobilfunk
KPN Royal Dutch Telecom announced this morning that for 18.7 billion Euro it had acquired 77.5 per cent of E-Plus Mobilfunk, now Germany's largest mobile telephone operator, while BellSouth, one of the founding shareholders of E-Plus, keeps the remaining 22.5 per cent. This is a considerable blow to France Telecom, which had made a bid for E-Plus following the breakdown of its relationship with Deutsche Telekom over the latter's bid for Telecom Italia. France Telecom is currently in litigation with DT over this. DT has reciprocated by moving into the French telecom market. In October, France Telecom had bought from Vodafone its 17 per cent $1.86 billion stake in E-Plus, a competitor to Deutsche Telekom. E-Plus is something of a prize since German mobile penetration is a low 23 per cent, compared with the European average of 33 per cent, giving a considerable potential upside. KPN Mobiel is now third in Europe with 8 million customers, and is spending the cash pile it obtained when it sold is stake in Telecom Eireann. Some 40 per cent of KPN's revenue is from the data sector, and it expects this to increase to 60 per cent following the acquisition. The development of KPN Mobiel is seen as a defensive move on KPN's part to make a takeover more difficult. KPN is financing the deal with a bridging loan through a syndicate of banks, and will be re-finance it with an IPO for KPN Mobiel. There is a complex deal between KPN and BellSouth, which has a right of first refusal to buy 100 per cent of E-Plus. BellSouth will keep its E-Plus holding for 18 months, and then for the following 30 months there are three possibilities: convert the stake to around 19 per cent of KPN shares; convert the stake to KPN Mobiel shares worth an estimated EUR 6.4 billion; or to do neither and remain a shareholder. BellSouth sees the advantage of this as a cash investment of $150 million in E-Plus becoming a $7.8 billion asset (its revenues are around $25 billion) which is not reflected in the stock price, according to Duane Ackerman, CEO of BellSouth. The transaction should close early next year, and regulatory problems are not anticipated. ®
Chip sales hit four-year high
Chip sales hit a record $13.4 billion last month, spurred on by demand for mobile phones and the Internet. Worldwide sales rocketed 23 per cent on the previous October, the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) reported. This broke the previous record of $13.2 billion, set in November 1995, and represented a 5.6 per cent increase on September 1999. Figures were up in all four regions assessed by California-based SIA: Europe, the Americas, Japan and Asia Pacific. Europe and the Americas saw the least growth, with 10.4 per cent and 15.5 per cent respectively. Sales jumped 35.6 per cent in Asia Pacific, and 37.7 per cent in Japan. Shipments were accelerated by surging demand for mobile phones and Internet infrastructure products, SIA said. It previously reported that sales in the semiconductor industry would top $144 billion this year, and $174 billion in 2000. Growth of 20 per cent in 2001 would bring in $209 billion, with sales estimated to reach $234 billion in 2002. ® Related stories November round up -- DRAM prices on the slide Taiwan chip power house doubles sales Rising chip fab kit sales signals recovery
Does MS care about WinCE, or is the browser the platform?
The various Microsoft and Ericsson participants in the announcement of this week's mobile market alliance were at some pains - Ericsson reps in particular - to point out that it did not cover Windows CE, and did not affect Ericsson's plans for Symbian. Habitual Microsoft watchers however noted MS president Steve Ballmer's statement that the new double act provided "a good forum for discussion of future opportunities." And we know what kind of future opportunities Steve has in mind, don't we? Well, not necessarily. A bit of reading between the lines of the various conference calls that have taken place over the past couple of days, plus a bit of background, suggests that maybe Microsoft doesn't care that much about CE at all, and that maybe, with exquisite irony, it's stealing a leaf out of Netscape's book, and giving the middleware concept a jolly good blurring for luck. Current perceptions of Microsoft's intentions are generally based on the "Windows Everywhere" strategy, and as far as CE is concerned that means most analysts take the view that Microsoft's ultimate objective is to get CE accepted in the mobile, device, appliance and TV markets as a standard platform of equivalent ubiquity to Windows in the PC market. Apply this view to the Ericsson deal and the process goes something like this: Ericsson's adoption of Microsoft's Mobile Explorer microbrowser plus its participation in a joint venture company with Microsoft constitutes a foot in the door for the boys from Redmond, who will then contrive to embrace and extend their way through Ericsson's operations until CE does in fact triumph. Microsoft only has itself to blame if people think this kind of stuff, and after all the hoo-ha about integration of browsers it only has itself to blame when people assume an MS browser automatically comes with an MS operating system attached. But actually, with Mobile Explorer, this isn't the case; not yet anyway (Microsoft only has itself to blame when people say this too). The Mobile Explorer announcement was to some extent eclipsed by the announcement of the Ericsson deal, but look at the small print, and compare it with what Ballmer was saying about the market later, and a different picture emerges. Mobile Explorer is being presented as a multiple component platform that will let Microsoft partners (i.e. Ericsson, at the moment) pick and mix the bits they want. The components are dual mode browser (which will become somewhat more dual mode with the addition of Ericsson's WAP input), Windows CE, applications and server-side components. Ericsson, it would appear, has picked the browser and server-side components. Mobile Explorer for feature phones (again, the one covered in the Ericsson deal) "is an operating system independent, air-link agnostic, browser-based solution that enables secure corporate or personal access to email, personal information manager data and the Internet when connected to a wireless network." This manifestation of the product is aimed slap-bang at the major growth area for mobile phones on the Internet, which is of course for cheaper classes of hardware that can pick up your email and do a bit of other Web-related stuff. The more upmarket "communicator" class of hardware is where Psion lives at the moment, and where CE is most likely to end up fighting Symbian-based devices, but the unit sales will only be a small part of the total market. So we can conclude that Microsoft has learned something. If it can produce a slim browser for mobile phones in general (incidentally it bought this browser from a Cambridge outfit earlier this year), it's going to get access to a lot more eyeballs than it would if it carried on flogging down the CE route. It may even have learned enough to pull a flanker on Symbian, because although Symbian's EPOC is intended to scale down to feature phone class hardware, OS agnosticism could give Microsoft an advantage (even if an OS-agnostic Microsoft is a positively eye-rolling concept). Alongside the feature phone implementation Microsoft will also be offering Mobile Explorer for smart phones, which will use CE, and will therefore be a direct competitor for EPOC-based communicators. But although Microsoft doesn't mention it, a couple of the Ericsson speakers this week did trail the possibility of Mobile Explorer running on Symbian, so even this implementation of the Microsoft product shouldn't be assumed as being CE-only - Microsoft does describe Mobile Explorer as a platform, and it might just be reasonable to take this at face value, rather than to try to drag in a specific OS as the real platform. Ballmer's ideas about growth via the Ericsson deal fit in with this. He didn't talk about selling stacks of CE units, but cited instant messages, chat and calendar applications as being places where the action would be. He was also positively modest in his target for users, pointing out that Microsoft had around 30 million Exchange users, and that he'd be happy if every one of them were using the MS-Ericsson wireless system. Of course he wouldn't really be happy if this was all that happened; he suggested "commoditising" Exchange to be a more general service, which is more like it. But all of these areas fit in with the notion of a slim, OS-agnostic browser-based computing model. This tallies with what Ballmer himself said earlier this year about Digital Dashboards (windows on data, which don't need specific sizes of client or specific operating systems), and with what Bob Muglia had said earlier about the point of the Ericsson deal (Muglia incidentally owns CE development, but it's a bit difficult to confirm this these days - see below). Muglia said the deal was about "corporate access and email and underlying software... the microbrowser is the user interface into the data access world." Muglia's Business Productivity Group within Microsoft owns BackOffice, so he would say that, but it also owns standard applications, Office Online, and the various wireless-related stuff Mobile Explorer is part of, so if Muglia is obviously partial towards BackOffice, Microsoft is structured to encourage this. Really we're left with a growing picture of a Microsoft strategy that still aims at owning the client, but that doesn't necessarily aim at pushing a single, proprietary, Windows client. This change from Windows Everywhere could come in extremely handy if Microsoft ends up being forced to split into three or more separate companies (by a remarkable coincidence, three prototype groups, Windows, online and applications, now exist), but more importantly it's a sensible approach to take in preparation for a world of pervasive connectivity where the PC is likely to fade to only a small part of the total picture. By competing with a slim microbrowser Microsoft stands a good chance of getting the ubiquitous client out there, and via this of extending the reach of BackOffice and of the various Internet-related services (travel, shopping, Hotmail, whatever) the MS Consumer Group wants to push. It's actually a pretty sensible strategy, and it's one that would have been a lot less sensible if it was chained to Windows CE. So the next question - what's Windows CE for, anyway? If Microsoft has figured this out, it's not telling us yet. All of the Windows platforms are now in the Platforms Group under Jim Allchin, apart from, er, Windows CE. In future commercial revs CE is to be tagged "Windows Powered," which blurs it more than a little. CE development meanwhile is carried out by the Productivity Appliances Division. This is barely mentioned in Microsoft's orgcharts, but it's part of Muglia's empire. Of the few references made to it this year, the bulk have been of job titles of various Division execs quoted in product announcements. The Mobile Explorer announcement (remember this isn't necessarily a CE product) for example includes a quote from Productivity Appliance Division VP Harel Kodesh. ®
UK PC makers throw weight behind Athlon 750
Leeds-based PC builder Panrix has added its name to the roll call of system builders launching machines with AMD's Athlon 750MHz chip. Panrix is offering two machines - the Magnum 750, with 128MB memory, 13.5GB hard drive, AGP Creative GeForce Annihilator 32MB graphics card, 56.6 modem, 17 inch screen and Windows 98 at £1,685 plus VAT. And the Magnum Max 750 - aimed at the engineering or scientific computer aided design (CAD) market. It has 256MB SDRAM, 18GB hard drive, Diamond Fire GL graphics card, 19 inch screen, uses the NT operating system and costs £3,485 plus VAT. Evesham Micros has also launched four machines using the 750MHz chip which AMD started shipping on 29 November. The lower-end TNT2 machine has 64MB memory, 12.9GB hard drive, 16Mb TNT2 Vanta AGP video card, 56K modem, 17 inch screen and Windows 98. It costs £1,329 plus VAT. Evesham's top-end machine in the range is the TNT2 Ultra, with 128MB SDRAM, 27GB hard drive, 10x10 DVD-ROM drive, 32MB Guillemot Xentor TNT2 Ultra Graphics, 56K modem and Windows 98. It costs £1,699 plus VAT. Other PC builders selling machines with AMD's speediest chip include Carrera, Time Computers and Mesh. Carrera introduced its Octan M750 PC last month. Priced at £2,099, it has 128MB, 34GB hard drive, Guillemot GeForce and 19 inch monitor. Time has launched the Time UltimatePC 750, with 256MB SDRAM, 27GB hard drive, 32MB TNT2 AGPx2 3D graphics and 19 inch monitor. It has a 6x DVD-ROM drive and costs £1,995 plus VAT. And London-based system builder Mesh is offering its Matrix 750T at £1,895 plus VAT. The £1,895 machine comes with 128MB memory, 22GB hard drive, Matrix G400 (32MB) graphics card, 10x DVD-ROM, 19 inch monitor and Corel Word Perfect Office 2000. One source said AMD was stealing customers from Intel thanks to the Athlon range and Intel supply chain problems. "Customers who wouldn't usually look at AMD are definitely buying the Athlon. AMD seems to be a bit ahead of the pack at the moment," he said. One system builder said AMD now accounted for 50 per cent of its sales, compared to being virtually 100 per cent Intel last year at this time. This is AMD's sixth chip in the Athlon range. AMD said the majority of Athlon 750 machines were selling at around the £1,700 to £2,000 mark, and that PC World would soon be introducing a machine using the chip. ® Related stories: Gateway to start shipping Athlon PCs this week AMD piles on Intel pressure with 750MHz Athlon
Coppermine gets Voodoo curse
Gateway has warned customers using systems which include a Coppermine processor and Voodoo3 of problems with some games. According to a Gateway memo, the problem will be fixed in around two week's time, when new drivers will become available. The games affected are Drakan, Descent 3, Close Combat Russia Front 3.0, Midtown Madness, Alien vs Predators, Civilization II, Mechwarrior III and Toca 2. Issues include machines locking up, corruption of landscapes and related problems. Gateway warned that the problem may potentially occur with other games too. An Intel representative said that customers should always ensure they have the latest version of drivers when they get themselves new technology. Gateway said that there is no need to replace the games or arrange onsite maintenance because of the glitch. ®