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8/96 Analysis: Start

Unexpected Pleasures

Despite all our kvetching, sometimes complex things do go right the first time.

By Fred Langa, Editorial Director

I ADMIT IT. I'm never satisfied. I get my hands on some fire-breathing PC with the fastest CPU on the planet, enough RAM to hold the U.S. Census data in live memory, a video system so fast it gives me windburn, a monitor the size of a drive-in movie screen, a hard drive so capacious I hear an echo when I drop in data and a multimedia system better than the stereo I owned in college. Yet I find myself telling a co-worker, "Gee, you know, the keyboard's a little too springy for my taste."

I'm not alone in focusing on the negatives of our desktop technologies. Take the Web. People complain it's disorganized, insecure, slow and overhyped. But if it's so awful, why are 20 million people using it? Sure the Web has flaws, but it's still an incredibly rich storehouse of information on an astonishing array of topics, and an extraordinary amalgam of computing power. And the Web's problems can all be solved or ameliorated. In fact, this month's cover story deals with the Net's insecurity and shows how you can keep yourself, your data and your company's assets safe.

Another common gripe-magnet is Plug-and-Play technology. "It's still not as good as the Mac," you'll hear, even though Apple's approach worked only on a closed system where Apple dictated all the rules and premium prices were the norm. PnP can still work beautifully even though it has to deal with a mind-boggling range of system and software types-including cheapo clones where vendors may have cut a few too many corners. For example, I needed to upgrade a five-year-old computer my kids use. I bought an off-the-shelf multimedia kit-you know, one of those brand-name "everything you need all in one box" things. It took about 20 minutes of simple screwdriver work to install the hardware and zero effort to get it working: On reboot, Win95 woke up, noticed the new sound card and CD-ROM, installed the drivers, and got everything running without my intervention.

Give PnP a chance

PnP can even work on some very funky hardware. For a different project, I needed to install an external, serial-port-driven device at home, but both my systems' COM ports were already in use. I had a fossil serial port card lying in a drawer, but it was no gem: I think I paid maybe $10 for the thing three or four years back, and I'd long since lost the documentation for the jumper pins. I could figure out the standard stuff, like setting the address and IRQ jumpers, but some of the jumpers weren't marked at all: Who knows what they did? So I made some guesses, plugged in the primitive card, held my breath and booted Win95.

Win95 awoke, announced it had found new hardware and installed some drivers without complaint, all automatically. I peeked at My Computer/Properties/Device Manager, and there was a new COM port sporting a welcome "no conflicts" message. I tried using the new port, and it worked perfectly-the first time.

Of course, PnP doesn't always work. There are many combinations of old systems, old BIOSes, off-brand equipment and obsolete drivers it can't handle. And even with new hardware, if a vendor ships a system with a bad driver or doesn't play by the rules, PnP won't work. After all, it's technology, not magic. Yet these are the stories you hear most-the instances where PnP doesn't work, rather than the huge number of cases where it does.

The kvetchers also complain about the industry's loss of innovation, despite the constant advances and refinements we run into every day. For instance, I recently had the pleasure of installing the tiny Visioneer PaperPort desktop scanner. It's a Win 100 award winner, so I knew it was good. However, scanning is a complex business, and I expected some inevitable hassles.

But from start to finish, it took less than a half hour to set up, and everything worked the first time. Memos, business cards, news clippings, photos-everything I fed in produced a clear, quality scan. The included OCR software worked as advertised, turning scanned text into Word documents, and did a better-than-expected job interpreting the contents of business cards, automatically converting them into an electronic Rolodex. Cool!

I had a similar experience with ISDN-not getting the physical line installed, but using it once it was up and running. (Installing the line and getting it to work wasn't easy, but that's a phone company thing, not a computer thing.)

Once the line was turned on, I plugged in my ISDN adapter and loaded its one-disk setup program-a five-minute procedure. I then created a new Dial-Up Networking connection (four minutes), clicked on Connect and in about three seconds, connected to the WinMag LAN at 115Kbps. Win95 is a well-behaved networking client for all kinds of networks, including remote-access setups. And its proficiency in handling a new ISDN hookup was impressive. I expected a major hassle, but it was the same as setting up any other modem and Dial-Up Networking connection: If you can make a standard modem connection, you can get an ISDN adapter to work with Win95.

Speaking of Win95, consider the paradox it's created: No OS has ever been adopted by so many in so little time. Some 18 million copies of Win95 are currently in use, according to Microsoft. You could justifiably argue that Win95 is the most successful operating system ever. But, inexplicably, and totally contrary to the numbers, some circles rap Win95 as a dog or a dud. This is partially Microsoft's fault for overhyping it last summer. When Win95 came out and didn't end world hunger, bring a thousand years of world peace, cure cancer and end up instantly installed on every single desktop worldwide, some people felt it somehow failed to meet expectations. Sure, it has flaws. What operating system doesn't? But Win95 met reasonable expectations, and, kvetching aside, remains the best OS for the vast majority of end users.

I don't want to be a Pollyanna and pretend problems don't exist. Things can and should be easier, products should do what they're supposed to do, and companies shouldn't overhype and overpromise. But I'm resolving not to lose sight of the successes, the good stuff, the smooth installs and the products that work right the first time. Care to join me? Either way, drop me a note.

Share the wealth

Speaking of products that work right from the start, many of you responded to last month's "Desktop Gems" column (still available at with suggestions of your own. When I compiled all the separate suggestions and comments into one continuous document, I had more than 75 pages of text. I'm boiling it down and will share the comments with you soon. Keep those cards and letters coming!

You've read the previews and endured the hype. Next month, we'll see if NT 4.0 works right, from the start. WinMag will take a thorough look at the final, for-real versions of this new NT incarnation. Our NT guru, John Ruley, spearheaded the editorial effort. You'll come away knowing whether you should move up to the new NT (with the Win95 look and feel) or stick with what you have. It should be fascinating reading!

Fred Langa is Editorial Director of CMP's Personal Computing Group. Contact Fred via his home page at in the WINDOWS Magazine areas on America Online and CompuServe. To find his E-Mail ID Click Here

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