Knocking The Gates 01

By John Crane

Originally published in EUG #41

It was interesting to read in EUG #39 that a few people are considering whether to upgrade to PCs, such as the new Pentium 2s.

Some people might recall I took the plunge some time ago. It was only ever because it was necessary but I did know what I was letting myself in for, after having borrowed my brother's.

Like I say, I did need it. And I was interested in logging onto the Net, but I finally made my purchase because my machine was so very cheap.

In the few weeks I had been planning my purchase, the man who sold me the machine was able to offer a machine of far higher specifications (e.g. twice the memory, etc) for a little less money.

I got the machine home.

It was fine.

I was chuffed about the price (about £885) and, back then, the machine specifications made it a relatively powerful machine (133MHz 586, 16Mb RAM, 1.04Gb HDD, 14.4Kb modem etc). It also came with Windows 95 on CD - not installed - so one of the first things I did was to install it.

However, although the machine was quite reasonable under Windows 3.11, it virtually ground to a halt with 95. I'm not talking a slight reduction in speed: it was painful to watch...

Now that's all fair enough. My machine is quite possibly underclocked and I don't doubt the drivers have been installed poorly and the design shoddy. I was obviously aware at the time that the machine would lose value, and it has now lost at least half. I was also aware that it would be obsolete as soon as I unpacked it. (I tell a lie, it lasted a few weeks before Pentiums were announced.)

What I have a problem with is this: I paid my money, like thousands every week, for a machine that was supposed to handle my requirements for now. But when I come to do some real work on the machine, like essay writing, I have to spend five minutes waiting for the machine to start up. I then have to load up my word processor and try typing my text. What are the chances the machine will keep changing my font without my wanting it to?

And then the size. I decide to change the printer by installing my drivers and all printing becomes skewed. I choose to change the start-up options and the computer seems to take it as a personal insult. Then I find my files have been corrupted.

Let's try and resurrect them - that's sorted.

Now I'll carry on writing my essay I started on another computer. Pop the disk in the drive and load it. Oh, different version of Word. Tell it what I'm using. All the fonts are of course different to those on the original computer. Fair enough - I don't have those fonts - but couldn't its seemingly random selection be of a legible font?

OK, I'll select my text, change the font. Huh? Half the words have changed to expletives. Hmmm, yet another virus. Now no-one can take a disk off my computer until I've eradicated it.

Maybe I'll blunder through and print it off at the end but my point is this: half of the problems I've mentioned are due to the machine being far more complex than I need.

When do I use 250 fonts in a document? How many reports do I write that require such complex page layouts? Am I expected to mail-merge every day?

When did I last use a macro, the medium of the e-mail viruses? Sure, I may do one of these things every so often, but in the same way as if I want to watch a reel-to-reel film I'll borrow a projector, when I want to write a novel I'll borrow a computer - it's not like they're hard to come across.

It's all very well to say that it's so I have the capability of doing these things but think about this: If I do them so rarely, how am I going to manage to do them on my home computer with no-one's guidance when the help files are 'perfectly accurate but practically useless'?

And suppose I get the advice?

You could say that, though I can count on one hand the number of formal reports I've had to write, at least what has been referred to as the Microsoft Bloat Factor has meant my machine could handle them.

Did it ever! Handling a 14,000 word report with a few styles, fonts, footnotes and diagrams is as close to the limit of MS Word as you're likely to come!

Needless to say, my computer ground to a halt so I had to do them on college machines as if I only had a humble text only word processor at home.

So basically, I've paid good money for a program so complex I find it difficult, if not impossible, to get my essays set out how I want them but when I talk about fairly complex work it goes on a sit-down strike. Is this just about the word processor though? Nope. You can read it for all of the machine's killer apps.

Fine. So seeing as far and away the machine is too powerful for most of my general needs (and it appears that with newer machines, the problems get bigger) at least they won't be encouraging me to upgrade.

Oh, I'm sorry, being naive again. But why do I want a machine which has more power when mine has already got too much?

The industry is not channelled into making them simpler. If that were the case, they wouldn't be getting more and more tiresome when each new package come out. I'm wasting my money on a machine like that.

My computer cost me £885 in August 1996. It is now November 1998 and I'll consider myself lucky if I get more than £300-odd. I've spent £585 on a machine that I've used for...word processing. And dodgy word processing at that.

What happened to all the other stuff I was going to do? Wasn't I going to be a power user, get my money's worth and all that? After all, I'm more likely to be than most: I was studying for a Computing A Level (which I got to Grade A standard). I was going to University to study Computer Science. I was creating a Business Information System for an Aluminium Stockholders in Essex. I was reviewing internet web sites to earn some money.

What happened to the object orientated programming environments? The internet? All the fun I was going to have creating databases for my hobbies?

The programming was too inconsistent with the target machines. The internet was too clumsy and the browsers affected the running of the computer not to mention leaving it at the mercy of viruses. The virus problem was solved but the virus detector doubled the startup time and noticeably slowed the machine down. The databases were painfully slow. And the games...nice and free, mostly, but when I spend £50 on TIE FIGHTER I don't expect to spend three hours installing it. That's assuming the games were 'simple' enough to be compatible with my machine.

So gradually all these things slipped away and my machine became an expensive word processor cum doorstop. So much for buying the machine for work and ending up playing games on it. I wish.

Fair enough I'm making a bit sideswipe at the industry, and perhaps I'm being unreasonable in my demands, but I believe the industry is the way it is to line the pockets of the few at the top. It is not in people's interests to upgrade - but who can resist the pressure of obsolescene?

Especially if your computer breaks.

When 80% of people use no more than 10% of the functions (several studies have found this) maybe it's time to think there's a problem.

When users loathe the PC as strongly as they loved classics, maybe it's time to think there is a problem. When Bill Gates, now he's made more money than anyone in history, starts amazing industry leaders by poking fun at the industry itself and points out that "maybe things aren't as good as they could be", maybe it's time to think there is a problem.

I never thought I would see the day that Bill Gates would criticise the PC but Microsoft insiders leaked he is concerned that the industry will collapse due to the simplicity, reliability and cheapness of the digital TV set-top boxes (Note: these will handle the internet and are already Network Computers). Maybe computers will eventually be a dream to use. We can hope.

I only came to considering this because I was asked to write an indepth investigation of the computer industry and potential uses for obsolete technology. It was by pure chance this happened, and it was only when I was considering the advantages of this second-rate technology that I began thinking quite how attractive it was.

You can, of course, forget it as it stands. Machines like our dear old Elk are, in practice, virtually useless tools (even if adorable ones). Even tasks such as word processing are generally tedious on these machines but there are relatively few modifications required to make them handle well. They have potential when used in certain ways, though I always assumed they would be second-rate, certainly to "state of the art" Pentium 2s. But I have no doubt now, having considered the modifications required to make them work well, that if my dream machine existed, it would not be Intel Inside and, amazingly, about half the system would have been obsolete for a decade. It took me a year to take that last thought in and, boy, was I amazed!

The downside of coming to that conclusion is that I am now thoroughly cynical of the PC industry, indeed anything in which technology is used because it has just been invented instead of because it is practical (I have since heard of E. F. Schumacher who studied the phenomena of technological determinism in the 1970s). I'm planning to sell my PC and definitely not buy a new one. Unless I have no choice, I intend never to have another PC based around the current way of thinking (which could have collapsed by tomorrow: the iMac is an interesting trend to investigate).

If I can get some money from my system I will buy a system that actually does the job it says it will. (Incidentally, would you buy a car you believed would have an average 4.5 hours downtime every week? I think Watchdog would have something to say!)

For my word processing, I will scrap the flexibility (and therefore the inefficiency) of the PC. When I need to use a non-standard program I will borrow someone else's. At least then they will be the one with the headache of the PC. Just think, buying a dedicated, full-screen word processor: instant start-up time, an organised harddrive filled with tiny text files instead of graphics dumps and wave files, an operating system that is simple so I can work faster, no stress about viruses, infinitessimally slower obsolescene and a printer designed to work with the machine. And they only cost £100! Was I blind?

Then, when I want the internet, I get an Internet Computer like the new Commodore 64 or the Acorn NC. No worry about viruses - again, faster access time, simpler technology and I know that if it crashes, I just press the reset button and it starts up again (unlike a dodgy PC - your files become mincemeat if you're unlucky). Not to mention getting it through my TV so I can sit on my sofa if I choose.

And the games? They are the beauty. A Sony Playstation for me! They complain about the loading time. Hmmm...I'm sure I could get in the habit of moaning about fifteen seconds (!). Actually, I'd love to get in that habit. Forget your device drivers or jumping videos, this is the real schabang. Higher quality gameplay, lower price, more speed. What was wrong with me?

Of course, the three of these aren't my dream machine. There'll be something to complain about. But the difference is this: they will be simpler, faster, cheaper, more efficient, won't go obsolete the next day and - should one break - you've got one thing to replace, not an entire computer! All of this for under £500 if you want it. That might be the entry piece of a new computer system, but I would prefer them to a top range Pentium 2. Not to mention that little thing that a computer for £500 is probably already obsolete.

Good old Elk. I'll keep her just for fun, of course.

Ross Little, EUG #41