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May 1996 Opinion Columns

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The Computer Industry Is Reinventing Itself

Sea changes in the computer industry
mean WinMag has changed, too.

By Fred Langa, Editorial Director

OVER THE PAST few issues, you've probably noticed WINDOWS Magazine has changed. It's a direct reflection of a sea change in the computer industry.

Take product life cycles. They're now measured in months or even weeks. When life cycles were longer, it made sense to collect a huge number of like products and review them all at once. You could see an entire product class or category, and have a nice, secure feeling that whatever you wanted to buy would be there on the list when you were ready.

But now that vendors race products out the door in record time, it's just plain silly to pretend that, say, June is the month to review monitors and October the month to review printers. These kinds of annual or semi-annual product roundups guarantee that many or even most of the products in the roundup will be out of date or even obsolete by the time you're ready to use the magazine to make a purchase. The prices, specifications and even core technologies are changing too fast. The old round-'em-up-once-or-twice-a-year review strategy just doesn't work anymore.

That's why you'll now find all the product information you need in one mammoth, all-inclusive Reviews section in this and every issue of WinMag. WinLab is now gathering the best and most interesting products released each month, and focusing its extensive testing on these brand-new products.

By making the Reviews section market-driven instead of driven by some arbitrary editorial calendar, we guarantee you the freshest, newest and hottest product information each month. We'll never hold off reviewing a product because we've scheduled a roundup review down the road. Nor will we waste your time with multiple reviews of the same product by covering it once when it's new and again as part of an artificial group review.

The WinLab testing process itself hasn't changed one iota. We still combine classic lab-based and real-world/real-life testing. And we still use the industry's first and only top-to-bottom Windows 3.1x/Windows 95/Windows NT test suite. No matter which flavor of Windows you use, count on WinLab to provide accurate information that relates to how you'll use these products in your office or home.

The most comprehensive Recommended list you'll find anywhere caps the new Reviews section. Other publications offer partial lists of this or that; the WinMag Recommended list is the only complete collection of all the best systems, software and peripherals refreshed and updated with each issue. So when you're ready to buy, you don't have to dig through your bookshelf or hope some magazine has run a recent roundup review. The information will always be as close as your current issue of WinMag.

Shortened product life cycles aren't the only change in the industry. Product lines are broader than ever. Consider the range of desktop operating systems. Right now, serious computing spans Windows NT (gaining incredible momentum in the high-end market), Win95 on standard desktops and Win3.1x in places where fiscal or technological conservatism requires the use of older systems. All three are valid approaches to computing today.

More NT coverage

As your choices broaden, so does WinMag's coverage. That's why you'll now find even more NT-based information in each issue. WinMag has covered NT in monthly columns since the software was in alpha. But NT is gaining mainstream acceptance, and one way or another it will affect us all. Our new Enterprise Windows section will ensure that you have the information you need, whether you already use NT or you're just scoping out the high end. (Remember: What happens at the high end almost always migrates down to our standard desktops.)

Hardware, too, offers broader and more confusing choices. Once upon a time, generational differences in hardware meant enormous gains in power and productivity. (I've never quite been able to duplicate that "Wow!" feeling I had back in Jurassic times when I swapped my 4.77MHz IBM PC for a blistering 10MHz XT clone and watched my delivered throughput double.) In those days, you almost couldn't go wrong when you upgraded. But today, what's the real, delivered difference between a Pentium 90 and a Pentium 100? Or a 133 and a 150? Between a quad-speed and a 6X CD-ROM? Between a 28.8Kbps and a 33.4Kbps modem?

With the gradations between hardware types smaller than ever, you can't just buy your way out of operational inefficiencies with new equipment. Today, to stay ahead of your competition, you need to know how to deploy and master new hardware and software so you can use it to best advantage and unlock the full potential of the underlying technologies. That's where WinMag's features section and how-to columns come in.

The how-to columns and tips you'll find in every issue can help you unleash your hardware and software, and surmount the snags, "gotchas" and glitches that can plague us all. The features complement lab-based and real-world product testing by examining an assortment of topics, including the hidden or misunderstood features of today's hot products, the best practices to harness the power at your fingertips, and early warnings on emerging trends and technologies. Having great hardware and software may get you ahead of the pack, but WinMag features and how-to columns will help keep you there.

The new-products and news sections focus on products and events happening as close to press time as possible, so you'll always have the latest info. And because print publication has timeliness limits, we've enlisted WinMag Online to take up the charge.

The Online section of the print magazine has always unearthed the best and most interesting goings-on in cyberspace, and it will continue to do so. But by "WinMag Online," I refer to the various places online where you can get supplemental and even fresher information than you can in print.

For instance, in addition to putting a month's worth of computing news in context for the print edition, our news desk now provides daily updates online on the WinMagWeb site. WinMag's daily news can include anything from just-released product information to full-bore, hard-news pieces on major events in the computing world.

Better Web site

In fact, all of WinMag's online areas have changed-in some ways, even more than the print magazine has. We're freshening our America Online (Keyword: WinMag) and CompuServe (GO: WINMAG) areas, and we've completely (and I mean completely) overhauled and redesigned the WinMagWeb site at http://www.winmag.com/. You'll now enjoy faster access, better throughput, improved reliability, and a much cleaner look and feel. (Please also stop by my own completely reworked home page on the WinMagWeb at http://www.winmag.com/flanga/hotspots.htm.)

We want the combination of WinMag print and WinMag Online to be your complete resource for all the information you need to get your job done faster, better and smarter. Drop me a note and tell me what you think, and feel free to suggest any other improvements you'd like to see.

Fred Langa is Editorial Director of CMP's Personal Computing Group. Contact Fred via his home page at http://www.winmag.com/flanga/hotspots.htm, in the WINDOWS Magazine areas on America Online and CompuServe. To find his E-Mail ID Click Here

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The Explorer

I'm Not a Fortune Teller (But I Play One on TV)

Fifteen months ago I made three unpopular predictions about
the future of the Internet. Two have come true and one hasn't
... yet!

By Mike Elgan, Editor

IN MY FEBRUARY 1995 column-a full 15 months ago-I made an unpopular three-part prediction. First, I labeled the mass media hype over the nongraphical parts of the Internet, such as telnet, mailing lists and gopher, a fad. Second, I predicted the World Wide Web would "grow like crazy." And finally, I called online services the "future of cyberspace."

My forecasts about the decline of command-line Internet hoopla and the rise of Web hype have come true. The idea that online services would gain in popularity and in fact be most Web browsers' doorway is a bit dicier. I still think it will happen, and I'll tell you why in a minute.

The idea that the Web would grow and that popular culture would stop caring about nongraphical Internet services seems obvious now. But back in early 1995, most popular press accounts stuffed all Internet services into the same overhyped bag. When we published that column, I was inundated with calls from radio and TV news shows, as well as newspapers. They were incredulous that I would suggest much of the prevailing Internet hype was a fad. Surely everyone in America would embrace command-line ftp, MUDs, IRC, telnet and gopher services. Certainly the newsgroup and mailing-list mania sweeping the nation was a taste of the future.

But alas, it was not to be. The fad died even faster than I thought, and the Web grew faster than anyone predicted. Sure, lots of people still use nongraphical Internet services, but as a mass-culture phenomenon, it's deader than the CB radio.

The Web explosion

The Web's spectacular acceptance has turned the industry on its ear. Everyone's scrambling for an "Internet strategy." Content providers are exploring ways to make money. Advertisers are searching for the secret formula for successful Web ads. Software makers are developing Web creation or browsing software and add-ins, or building Web functionality into their offerings. Massive standards wars are being waged. Political battles over pornography and privacy are making headlines.

Meanwhile, something's happening that most of us don't like to talk about: The Web is getting slower. Searches take longer. More and more maxed-out sites are sending back "try again later" messages.

The slowest I've ever seen the Web was during the so-called "Blizzard of '96." For a couple of days in January, most East Coasters couldn't get to work. Those with Internet connections stayed home and browsed the Web. I was one of them. Performance was so slow it was barely worth it.

Even without natural disasters to overpopulate the Web, increased traffic affects performance. For instance, the Web is slower in the evening than it is in the morning. I've talked to dozens of people about this, and all agree that demand for bandwidth is growing faster than the bandwidth itself, resulting in an increasingly slow Web. Just wait till those bloated Java applets start hitting the Net.

The Web has other problems, too:

Enter intranets

My third prediction back in '95 was that most people would access the Web via an online service. I'd like to amend that: Most will access the Web through either an online service or a company intranet. (After all, an intranet is just an HTML-based online service.) Because of the Web's increasingly poor performance, lack of security and privacy, and inappropriate and missing content, most companies will embrace intranets and most connected consumers will embrace online services.

The industry will support this trend because there's more money to be made with intranets and online services. Already, Netscape says 70 percent of its business is intranet-based.

Intranets make sense because companies can leverage their current networks. HTML documents are getting easier to create and link all the time. And documents on an intranet are relatively safe from outsiders. Intranets suffer none of the problems that plague the Web.

Intranets won't replace the Web, of course. Many companies will continue to offer Web access right from their intranets. At WINDOWS Magazine, we have a staffwide intranet with our own information plus links to the Web. It's cheap, it's easy and it works.

Okay, so intranets are hot news, but aren't online services taking a collective nose-dive right now? After all, Apple's eWorld just closed its doors. Microsoft refocused The Microsoft Network only months after setting up shop. H&R Block plans to sell its CompuServe subsidiary. Sears is dumping its half of Prodigy, and as of this writing nobody seems to want it.

Online services narrow their focus

I think this is because these huge online providers try to be all things to all people. The kind of online services likely to succeed will focus on specific segments of the population. The first of these new online services comes from CompuServe. The new offering, called WOW, is actually two separate parts: one for adults and one for children. A service for teenagers is in the works. CompuServe will likely succeed with these services because it's tailoring the interfaces and content to specific types of users.

The children's service is particularly good. Parents want to turn their kids loose on much of an online service's content. But they don't want to expose them to chat perverts, profanity, pornography, or boring or upsetting content. The children's version of WOW provides links to Internet sites screened by WOW editors. Once kids are on the Web, they can go only to preapproved sites.

CompuServe's competitors and others will likely launch focused, targeted online services that will do well. Corporations and organizations that want to foster community feelings among employees or members may well launch private online services.

As online usage soars, people will use their company's intranet or their favorite online service as a primary place to hang out, and as a launching pad to the Web. Remember, you heard it here first.

Contact Editor Mike Elgan in "The Explorer" topic of WINDOWS Magazine's areas on America Online and CompuServe. To find his E-Mail ID Click Here

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Windows at Work

For Whom The Bill Tolls

The telecommunications bill will bring with
it an avalanche of new products and services
from communications companies and PC vendors.

By Cheryl Currid

REMEMBER BACK in February when President Clinton signed the long-awaited telecommunications bill? With the stroke of a pen (Clinton used both an ink and an electronic model), the president changed communications forever. It's a new game with new rules and, soon, new players.

There's no denying the bill will alter voice communications, but the real changes will affect your computer more than your telephone. Over the next six months to a year, you'll probably be hearing words like chaotic, complex and ever-changing.

Why? Two reasons. First, the bill removes a 60-year-old competitive barrier, clearing the way for a turf battle over your communications business. Second, new technologies, overshadowed by the bill itself, will bring even more powerful capabilities to your desktop system.

In anticipation of the bill's passage, many companies had already been planning new products and services. They began cranking out press releases even before the ink was dry. My electronic clippings files, which usually reel in about 50 communications-related announcements a day, suddenly swelled to a daily catch of more than 250.

Look for the emergence of strange, complicated alliances. Already, arch-rivals AT&T and MCI announced plans to look into co-marketing local and long-distance service. (The two can now vie for your local service, too.) After all those mean-spirited ads last fall, the long-standing competitors are joining forces against a common enemy-the regional Bell operating companies.

Joining the battle for your business (office and home) will be your cable company, your local broadcast media and potentially even your power company.

The next battle will likely be waged in the data transmission arena. New cable modems should be a real boon to Internet connections. Consider this: It takes 58 minutes to download a 10MB video file across conventional copper wires into a 28.8Kbps modem. Over a speedy ISDN line (approximately 128Kbps) it takes about 13 minutes. Cable modems can pull down the file in as few as 10 seconds.

The rapid growth of ISDN lines is testimony to the rate at which people adopt solutions that speed data communications. The number of ISDN lines nearly doubled in 1995, up to an estimated 448,000 from 247,000 a year ago, according to Dataquest. This year, analysts expect that figure to top 750,000. Before the turn of the century, ISDN installations could exceed 2 million.

As for cable modems, it's anybody's guess how the market will grow. A standard protocol for two-way data over cable is just now emerging; most systems are only in pilot tests. Analysts predict about 100,000 cable modems will ship this year (excluding the 500,000 already on order from the cable companies). The number of annual installations will likely reach 2 million to 4 million units by the year 2000.

Although cable modems offer blinding speed, there are drawbacks. Early units have been affected by interference from lighting or appliances. Further, existing standards don't offer the same speeds on both sides of the highway. Yes, you can receive at 20Mbps to 38Mbps, but you can send data at only 128Kbps.

Thanks for the memory

Don't overlook the significance of other newsworthy announcements. The telecom bill was only one piece of earthshaking news we heard over the winter. RAM prices began to plummet for the first time in three years. One PC catalog priced 4MB of RAM at $149.95 in early February, down from $219.95 in December. Analysts are unsure if the lower prices will stick, so I suggest you get what you need now.

Are we approaching nirvana? Will people go crazy over cheap chips and comm? I think not. We'll find plenty of potholes on this expanding information highway, including service disruptions as phone company suppliers try to get their collective acts together.

All this will have a dramatic effect on Windows at work. Prepare for an avalanche of new products and services to comprehend. Start reading and planning your budgets now. And remember, this is only the beginning. Stay tuned.

WinMag Analyst Cheryl Currid is president of Houston-based Currid & Company, a research and consulting firm. Contact Cheryl in the "Windows at Work" topic of WINDOWS Magazine's areas on America Online and CompuServe. To find her E-Mail ID Click Here

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Dialog Box

Moms Everywhere Will Love The Internet Appliance

Don't break your poor mother's heart. Buy her
an Internet Appliance.

By Daryl Lucas

THE NEGATIVE REACTION to the so-called Internet Appliance (IA) is giving me the chills. Most computer mavens hate it (WINDOWS Magazine's Fred Davis is one exception). "What a dumb concept," they say. "We already tried dumb terminals and diskless workstations-everybody hates them. You can't run your Windows productivity apps. For a few bucks more, you can get a low-end PC. Who would want this underpowered piece of junk?"

All good points, but all irrelevant. There is a market for these products. My own family is a case in point.

When I was in college, I wrote to Mom and Dad every week. Now I have a job, a family and a life of my own in the Chicago suburbs, some 800 miles from Mom and Dad's empty nest in Washington, D.C. I haven't written to them in well over a year. And I don't like talking on the phone, especially on pricey long-distance calls. The pressure to have a quality conversation while the meter is running cancels much of the joy of reaching out and touching. So I don't.

The memory of one particularly bad phone call haunts me. I picked up the phone and heard her voice. "Mom!" I said excitedly. "Hi!" Her tone was flatter. "Oh," she said, "you're alive. I was beginning to wonder."

I laughed uneasily, then we talked-uneasily. If it weren't for my wife, my mother would likely have written my obituary by now.

I know the IA has a place in this world: my mother's living room. For a few hundred bucks, she could maintain contact with me and my brothers. We would e-mail her, she would e-mail us, life would be good.

It's already reacquainted me with my brother Richard in Los Angeles. For years, we hardly kept track of each other beyond once-a-year sightings at Christmas, plus an annual phone call. Then a year ago, we discovered e-mail. We've kept in touch ever since.

Last Christmas, as we discussed what to get Mom and Dad, we listed the usual candidates. Then Richard said (in an e-mail message), "I'd really like to get them that Internet Appliance so we could e-mail them. It's so much easier than writing letters."

I fear the IA will never fly, caught in some consumer netherworld with CD-I. But I sure hope it will, because we need this. No technology since the telephone has held more promise as a bridge-builder across the rivers that have flooded our modern landscape. There is no other cheap, convenient way to keep in touch with people far away. "Yes there is!" you say. "What about e-mail?" True, but you need a computer to access e-mail, and computers are too expensive for use as e-mail boxes alone. For folks without a computer, an e-mail appliance is a fairy godmother on the night of the ball.

Today, families are spread thinner than butter on a hot driveway. E-mail makes this world more of the global village it's supposed to be. But this metaphor is just a tease. A true global village needs an e-mail appliance.

Pundits see the IA as a weak PC, but that's like throwing rocks at Forrest Gump. The IA is a new kind of telephone-a small, relatively cheap, ubiquitous, universal gadget that serves one purpose: communicating with people who aren't here. I don't expect it to stand in for my computer any more than I expect my telephone to run WordBasic macros.

There's nothing wrong with this highly functional, single-use appliance. As long as you don't expect it to do more, it earns its rent.

The IA will cost $250

Will the IA succeed? Cost will be a determining factor. Five hundred dollars is three sons pitching in for a Christmas gift; $1,500 is not. I don't think the IA will even cost $500; I think it'll cost $250 or less. Remember, four-function calculators cost $100 when they hit the market. Now you can get them for a couple of bucks.

Market forces will have more to say about the IA than I will. Whatever the outcome, it's still a great idea, and not because of power, Microsoft envy or engineering prowess. It has to do with writing home. From that perspective, $500 is a bargain; half of that is a steal. If you don't believe me, ask your mother-assuming she doesn't have a computer. Mine doesn't, so it'll be some time before I find out.

Daryl Lucas is an editor for The Livingstone Corp., producer of Bible-related products for publishers. Contact Daryl in the "Dialog Box" topic of the WINDOWS Magazine areas on America Online and CompuServe, or care of the editor at the addresses on page 18. Have an opinion (or a gripe) about Windows computing? Send it to Nancy A. Lang. To find her E-Mail ID Click Here

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