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ATPM 12.08
August 2006



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by Mark Tennent,

Rockin’ with a Roller

There used to be a time when going to a motor show was the chance to view gleaming vehicles costing impossible prices, all draped with nubile nymphets wearing little more than a chamois leather bikini. In the raunchy 1970s and 80s they often wore less, but with these more politically correct times, it’s just as likely to be Sven as Sheila pouting provocatively.

This year, the London Motor Show has made tuning-up more than just a petrolheads’ pastime as it combines cars with a rock festival. A ticket brings rocking and a roller together in perfect harmony. The bands booked to play include golden oldies Roxie Music and Van Morrison, UB40, and Simple Minds, as well as young wannabees and justmadeits. The cars are the world’s latest fashion statements, no doubt all having an iPod holder too.

For the first time, real hands-on experiences are available for free—with the cars, not the nymphets. Firms such as Mazda are letting punters get behind the wheel of their MX-5 roadster and RX-8 sports coupe, and drive a test circuit against the stopwatch. Seven other manufacturers including Honda, Peugeot, Seat, and Toyota, have built another 1.5 mile long track with a slalom, high-speed bends, and a couple of straights where drivers can floor the throttle. Not to be outdone, 4×4 manufacturers have a 500 metre course with obstacles designed to test specific aspects of a vehicle’s off-road ability. Visitors sit in the passenger seat as instructors take them round the circuit in a variety of vehicles on sale at the show. The manufacturers just need to know you are over 18 and hold a current driving license to “have a go.”

Finally, professional stunt drivers will be staging Romeo and Juliet, complete with warring families, balcony scenes, and stand-offs. Instead of people playing the characters, it will be cars, liveried as the Capulets and Montague families. By some weird coincidence, one of the UK’s greatest car nuts is Lord Montague who stores his collection of vehicles at Beaulieu, his stately home in Hampshire. The house and collection are open to the public, and many years ago I met Lord Montague there. Ever the chancer, he said: “You can have my autograph for five shillings,” to which my father promptly replied, “You can have mine for free!”

Back at the show, car manufacturers from four continents and umpteen different languages have managed to work together, and as a result the potential purchaser will have a far greater knowledge of their products, and will make a selection based on personal experience. It is of no consequence whether the vehicles are petrol, diesel, electric, four-door, three-wheeled, or convert into a submarine. They are all motor vehicles and share that simple feature in the same show.

Why can’t we have the same sort of thing at computer shows? Every time I’ve bought a new computer, printer, or other piece of kit, I’ve never been entirely certain what I am purchasing. All the reviews in the world are never going to give the same hands-on experience that only comes after the new kit is unpacked and set up. Apple Stores try to make it easier to judge a computer, but they are always so busy it is often impossible to get anywhere near the one you are interested in. Or it won’t have the software you need.

I want to test a computer, for example, running Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, XPress, Office, and a few other applications, all open at the same time. Then to print out this file I’ve brought with me, on that printer there, and compare it with the other printer over there and maybe the one in the corner too. How easy is it to fit new cartridges, and do they have to be from the same manufacturer? Will adding extra RAM really help? Show me the computer with a couple more chips in, or a different graphics card on a different monitor. Then I want to do the same with Windows or Linux and really choose the best of them.

Computer shows need not be annual Jobsfests, Ballmer Bashes, or vast halls full of kit that have no relationship with the equipment in the booth next door. With wireless networks, a little co-operation between exhibitors, and the will to do it, we could have a completely radical shake-up in how equipment is presented. Car suppliers are years ahead of computer equipment dealers in that they give, as default, a pre-purchase road-test. The only time I’ve ever been offered this was when Epson first released their Stylus Color Pro printers in the mid-90s. I tried the printer for a week then ordered one.

As it seems new Macs will all be able to run multiple operating systems concurrently, perhaps it is time for a new style of Apple Expo to emerge. One where Windows, Linux, and Unix software publishers are encouraged to attend alongside their Mac-only colleagues. They, in return, will be able to see that Apples are just computers, and most of the time will work with any off-the-shelf gadgets. The more integration there is of software and hardware with a greater emphasis on it being catholic and all-embracing rather than Windows-centric, the less likely it is that Macs will be sidelined.

For all the jokes we make about Vista, Microsoft’s imminent new operating system, it is going to be a major competitor to OS X and some would say a lot better, too. It is inevitable that Vista will not work with many current devices and applications, so manufacturers will have to learn the new features and adapt accordingly. At the same time, they could open their minds to Apple computers and Mac OS X and make them compatible too.

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