PCS stirs nostalgia for the days of soup cans and string

Loose cables is an irreverent look behind the scenes at testing computer products, in particular at IDG's Infoworld lab in the US. Our insights are gleaned during the long hours spent testing, and even longer hours spent sorting through outrageous vendor claims and press releases. Some of the insights are technical, some are political, and some are just funOur editors hopefully will forgive us if we try to promote an alternative definition for acronym-of-the-moment PCS, the cellular technology that's being touted as the next big thing in mobile communication.

PCS stands for personal communication services, and PCS phones offer caller ID and voice-messaging notification in addition to other advanced features.

What they don't offer is the ability to place or receive a normal phone call. Having a conversation on a PCS phone is, at best, like talking into an oil drum. We think pretty crappy service is more like it.

After providers iron out the kinks, PCS may well be the next big thing. Meanwhile, early adopters are footing the bill for the debugging effort.

Be thankful you don't have it in Australia (yet!). But then, you have your own problems with GSM, don't you?

Spell this

Companies often provide outlets where their resident cranks, tortured artists, and Peter Pans can express creative urges not humoured in the working world. These figurative sandboxes are usually tucked away from the rest of the class, so those doing real work aren't bothered.

Take Loose Cables, for instance. Or consider the workgroups responsible for online spelling checkers, a relatively harmless place to stash the bored programmers most likely to leave a little playground humour in the code.

For instance, it seems there's a potty-mouth working behind the scenes on GroupWise's spelling checker, which has three variations on that four-letter word of all four-letter words - including "f--head," which we couldn't find in any of the dusty dictionaries on our shelf.

Pork problem leads to more puns

The proliferation of pork puns directed at Earthlink in our September 10 column drew the ire of more than a few ISP managers who felt that our efforts were a little "ham-handed" in their own right.

For them, the spam problem is more like an enormous state-fair-sized hog than "a few strips of bacon", as we put it. The volume of mail is so tremendous that in many cases it can overwhelm servers and cause service outages for everyone - spammers or not.

One reader told us that as much as half of the mail hitting his servers is from bogus domains or of otherwise suspect origin.

Another told us of regular mail bombs containing hundreds of thousands of pieces. A third said spammers recently hijacked his server to the tune of 4 million messages.

(We couldn't escape the irony that a single Loose Cables item on e-mail overload generated a small flood of replies to our own inboxes.)So, should Earthlink be lauded for taking action against a malicious horde or chastised for denying service to paying customers? Perhaps both.

We stand by our assertion that the practice of flatly refusing to relay e-mail is a major hindrance to truly mobile messaging.

But other than roasting a piglet and jamming an apple in his mouth, what will solve the spam problem?

Some respondents pointed out that Mindspring's Spaminator service we mentioned works only with a user's inbox: it doesn't protect an ISP's mail servers.

However, several readers who responded to our hog-calling tell us they have developed inbound filters based on the same principles as the Spaminator. Of course, this is a lot of work for cash- and time-strapped ISPs, and devious spammers are already rooting their way around some of the filters like insatiable sows. A common thread in all the replies was a belief that market principles could eventually lead to a solution.

If consumers stop responding to junk mail - even one piece out of a thousand - the profit would be sucked out of the whole rancid industry, sort of like liposuction for the Internet.

We won't hold our breath. Let us know if you have additional ideas, and we'll keep our eyes open for other ways to fight the fat.

RAT of the week

Given the recent christening of Intel's newest silicon baby, we thought it would be a good time to get up close and personal with our resident Tillamook guru and RAT (reviews and testing) analyst, Andre Kvitka.

Although he still had Mother Russia's milk on his upper lip at the time, Andre remembers when one micron was the supposed limit of chip miniaturisation.

"Why do we act surprised when these 'unbreakable' barriers are broken?" he wonders.

On the success of the Tillamook: "It'll do just fine," Andre says. "Like we have a choice."

Perhaps more than any other lab rat, Andre will test through pain. He's benchmarked and battery-tested with black eyes and a concussion, but it wasn't an exploding notebook that walloped him.

"Real men play ice hockey," he regularly reminds us. Despite this unfortunate tendency to exercise, Andre really does think technology is fun - in short, sweet doses though. As he puts it: "You can't eat ice cream all the time."

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