CANNES, France—Youd think a man walking down the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival here, wearing his best tux, would have something more on his mind than Wi-Fi.
Well, no. Its been only four months since I was whining about the lack of wireless LAN services in Cannes. Here I am, back again, moaning and groaning about the same subject—but last time, we were at 3GSM. Youd expect wireless coverage at 3GSM to be particularly good; you wouldnt necessarily expect it to be wonderful for the film business.
My colleagues in the film world arent exactly technophobes. They are just very, very conservative. A friend of mine who covers the cinema business recently, reluctantly, upgraded his PC to Windows. I had to show him how to use Word because up until the end of last year he was using WordStar, under DOS 4.
Here at the Palais des Expositions Im the guest of NEC. Its virtually impossible to get into the Cannes Festival without NEC on your side because the company provides all the hardware and the networking and the back-end connectivity. The purpose of the visit is to show just what a professional job NEC does of managing the IT infrastructure of the festival—two weeks during which time a staff of 20 suddenly inflates itself to 900.
Heres the weird thing. Orange—or France Telecom, really—provides wireless networking in the press center. It has a hot spot in the main Palais, right next to the famous red carpet. The hot spot reaches out as far as the press conference rooms.
Inside the official press center are 30-odd PCs. Out in the convention and the screenings, there are 4,000-odd journalists—at any one time, around 1,000 of these busy, bustling reporters will be on site, covering the show.
So picture the scene as a big, important press conference comes to an end, and Tommy Lee Jones has startled everybody by turning out to be a really good film director. The presentation ends, and all the excited hacks want to file their stories RIGHT NOW!
What happens? Obvious, surely: They are online, connected to the Internet, and so they just press “Send,” and their story is filed, right?
“They all jump out of their chairs, and sprint for the press center, hoping to be first to get a PC,” says Jean Claude Tagger, senior vice president and general manager of NEC International Group. He waves his hands with a very Gallic flourish. “I dont know why they dont use the Wi-Fi,” he shrugs. “They are not technophiles!”
The thing is, they do all have notebooks. They do sit in the auditorium for the press conference, most making notes on notebooks—paper and pen, of course—and a few using their own PC or even, in one or two cases, Mac laptops.
My jaw was virtually coming unhinged at the sight of these guys. They come from all around the world, and NEC copes splendidly with their idiosyncrasies. “They log into the PC with their own personal settings, and they get their own desktop, configured in exactly the language and so on that they need,” recounts Tagger. “You see that guy? He is from an Arabic magazine; he has the screen showing Arabic characters.”
Indeed, he was. And he was using an AZERTY (French layout) keyboard. The marks on the keys bore no resemblance whatever to what was appearing on-screen, but it was clear he was clattering along at a lot more than 30 words a minute. Next to him, a reporter from some Cyrillic- using country was hunting and pecking, and shaking his head and backspacing, finding the right keys by trial and error.
Why would anybody who had their own laptop computer put themselves through this sort of torture? Simple enough, it seems: They havent got their heads around what wireless can do for them.
NEC reckons to budget some 300,000 euros for its sponsorship of the festival—and after tax breaks (cultural sponsorship in France is highly regarded by the revenue authorities) the company will probably have to find 200,000 euros net. Its a lot of money—paid off because it allows NECs biggest customers to see it managing a huge system. And, of course, who would turn down an invitation to walk the red carpet and rub shoulders with the stars?
There are technical advantages to the use of a press center computer. For a start, youre plugged into an NEC-provided giant FTP server. You log in, upload; your managing editor back home logs in and downloads. On the WLAN, you dont get access to that FTP server because of security concerns.
And this, I suppose, is where I start moaning and groaning. I do, honestly, understand that there are concerns with wireless security. And lets be honest, security is one of the obsessions of Cannes during the festival. I couldnt get into my own hotel without a full luggage search, and I had to wear a photo ID at all times—not just the normal IT convention card.
These stars are not just shy, theyre paranoid. Along the side of the red carpet into the giant screening auditorium, there is space for about 100 photographers; each has to stand on his or her own numbered circle, so that security will be able to tell whether something is out of the ordinary. There are even signs in the press center forbidding photography of the red carpet proceedings from the balcony because the security people wouldnt be able to tell if there was a cunning plot to disguise a firearm as a digital camera.
But the threat from wireless PC users these days is containable. We know because pioneers like Microsofts Andy Cheeseman, who goes around the world installing and running gigantic Wi-Fi networks for Microsoft conventions, have shown that even the nastiest Internet worms can be contained, isolated and dealt with. We know that the only people who get excited about WLAN security threats are security consultants hoping to get expensive commissions exposing these threats.
In a word, clarity. Until we, the professionals, achieve mental clarity about this technology and stop behaving as though Wi-Fi is a way of getting pink demons with piglike grunts into the network, or seeing Darth Vader using The Force on hapless network cards, we cant really expect the general non-tech public to buy into the idea, either.
And I suppose, you want to know which film it was I was watching? It was the Chinese film “Three Times”—which is easily the most powerful and astonishing … but there, Ill save that for my film blog, shall I?
Contributing columnist Guy Kewney has been irritating the complacent in high tech since 1974. Previously with PC Mag UK and ZDNet UK, Guy helped found InfoWorld, Personal Computer World, MicroScope, PC Dealer, AFAICS Research and NewsWireless.
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