NOTES FROM THE FIELD: Fact is stranger than fiction

Randi and I sat in front of the old tube last week - regular cable TV at her apartment - watching the presidential debates and the season premiere of West Wing.

"If Martin Sheen's character was running for president, do you think he'd beat Gore and Bush, Bobby?" she asked.

I suppose in a presidential election year that starts a new millennium and has the Olympics, anything could happen.

"Martin Sheen's character is fiction, so they can make him look good," I told her.

Randi pouted. "I'd vote for him, and I bet a lot of other people would too."

A veteran of BellSouth Entertainment shared some inside information about that cable company's set top box functionality and the required phone line. (Randi has been miffed, then suspicious, about the phone line AT&T Digital Cable requires with its digital cable services.)According to this insider, BellSouth Entertainment, in addition to pay-per-view billing information, used the BellSouth set top box and "collected lots of statistics about your viewing habits . . . every time you used your remote - every channel change, volume change, etc. It was able to use that information to report back to the cable channel companies and advertisers about what shows were really being watched."

Our insider says that when he was with the company it didn't release any individual information, just aggregated data. Still, he says, "it was pretty cool but scary stuff".

Responding to talk of IBM executives looking to boost revenues, some of the company's business partners have suggested a new strategy: "Make products."

Apparently IBM's supply chain is a little plugged up. Looking to buy 130 of IBM's desktop PCs, one business partner can find only 10 in stock, of a model that no one wants. This, he said, is one example of an ongoing problem, even though IBM's Web site shows these products are in stock.

"When Dell or Compaq have a shipping problem it's five days instead of [the promised] three. When IBM has a shipping problem its five years instead of three," he said.

It may have a fancy new name, but the former Bell Atlantic, now called Verizon Communications, may have let some other details fall through the cracks.

It seems that Verizon DSL - its high-speed Internet access service for home users - does not support Windows Millennium Edition, also known as Windows Me, Microsoft's new OS targeted at home users.

Verizon technicians say that a software driver will come out sometime in the next three to six months. Meanwhile, the only recourse for unsuspecting victims is to uninstall Me and reinstall Windows 98, "an absolute recipe for disaster", said one such victim.

"I think I'll start a write-in campaign for Martin Sheen's character, Bobby," Randi said. "I bet he'll win." I wondered if that would be a good thing or a bad thing.

Robert X. Cringely is a regular contributor to ARN's sister publication Infoworld

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