For some products, you'll have to wait

HERE'S WHAT'S NEWS IN COMPUTING NOW

January 04, 1993|By Phillip Robinson | Phillip Robinson,Knight-Ridder News Service

Wild goose chase.

It's a well-worn phrase, but one that often captures the spirit of computer news. Imagine a bunch of hounds, never quite catching a squawking, zigzagging goose.

Follow computer news closely, and you'll waste a lot of time reading about things that aren't important now, or won't be important for quite some time.

Being completely immune to such pressures of money, prestige and ego, naturally, I've pondered what computer issues you should care about this year.

I'll list them in climbing order of importance -- saving the really significant for last. For each I'll give a rating of 1 to 4 for how important it will be to the average computer user in 1993.

This week I'll tackle the over-rated, the 1s and 2s. Next week I'll get to the stuff that matters: the 3s and 4s.

RATING: 1 (WORST)

Pen-based computers

Although a boon to delivery people, general use of pens with computers is a good way off. Despite all the hype, the systems are still too expensive, heavy and slow. They don't do a great job of recognizing text unless it is carefully printed. Besides, typing is a far faster and more efficient way to enter text.

Speech recognition

A fascinating technology that lets your computer take dictation, it has a long way to go before being practical. Ignore it for now.

Object-oriented programming

This approach to writing programs builds from objects of program code that interact with one another. It lets programmers reuse pieces of program code, from one project to another, and helps groups of programmers work on different parts of a large project.

For those reasons it is sweeping the programmer world. But will you notice this when you use the programs? No. You won't have a clue, just as you wouldn't know if your car's body came from mini-mill steel or the old-fashioned steel from monster-sized factories.

Power-PC

This is the joint microprocessor project by Apple, IBM and Motorola. The goal is to create a next-generation chip for use in personal computers.

Along with it, the Apple-IBM Taligent joint venture is developing an object-oriented operating system based on Apple's "Pink" technology.

The Power-PC will come closer to reality in 1993, and you'll read more about it. But making an affordable computer from it, with plenty of software, is, at this point, fantasy.

Unix

Unix earns only a 1, after all these years. If you're a work station user, you live Unix. But for the much more common personal computers in the world, Unix still can't get itself together to become an easy operating system with lots of software.

Floptical disk

This is a special kind of floppy disk drive that can store 20 megabytes or so per disk -- 10 to 20 times what they hold today. A great idea, but until it appears in a popular personal computer and becomes some kind of standard, it is just another gee-whiz story.

RATING 2

OS/2

IBM is actually challenging Microsoft Corp. in operating systems, although barely. OS/2 version 2.0 has convinced some longtime skeptics that you don't have to use DOS and Windows. The IBM software is reliable and powerful.

The problems are that IBM isn't used to selling to the masses, and OS/2 doesn't run many programs.

Oh, it runs DOS and Windows programs, which is a technological feat. But it will always be a bit behind the latest version of Windows in running Windows programs. Can't help it, really.

What OS/2 needs to be a hit is to have some programs of its own that won't run under Windows.

Windows NT

Windows NT is an operating system that will start creeping out of laboratories in 1993. It will compete with Unix, which it will beat; OS/2, which is in better shape than ever, but still lacks many programs; and Pink, which is still only a poten- tial.

Because it won't be solid and real in 1993 and because it will run your Windows programs anyway, you don't need to think about the NT version for now.

Wireless modems

More and more connections among computers, either for phone-line calls or in-the-room networking, will be wireless. That will simplify life for travelers immediately and for office managers eventually, but it won't happen to most of us in 1993.

Work stations

Along with Unix, these Sun, Hewlett-Packard and IBM boxes were threatening to conquer the world of personal computers, offering more power at suddenly competitive prices. It didn't happen in '89, '90, '91 or '92 and won't in '93. Personal computer prices are falling and power is climbing too fast for work stations to catch them.

Multimedia

For a few, PC multimedia -- mixing video with sound on a personal computer -- is critical; for the majority it is still too difficult.

Watching television on screen for the price of a $400 board is fun, but hardly practical. Adding video clips to a presentation looks impressive but still takes a lot more work than most of us have time for. Recording sound notes to add to spreadsheets makes great demos, but few want stored voices chirruping their way into the office cubicle.

Multimedia won't be a 3 or 4 until most PCs have sound and video hardware and software.

OLE

Object-linking and embedding is Microsoft's way of linking programs within Windows for immediate feedback from one to another, such as changing a chart inside a word processor document. It's a good idea, but it won't affect the way most of us work for at least another year.

So if someone wants to tell you about pens, Pink, Unix, OS/2, speech, multimedia, Power-PCs, wireless modems, work stations, Floptical drives, OLE, or even Windows NT, check your watch. If you have some time to listen to science fiction, give them a minute. If not, ask them to come back in January '94 when there's some real news.

Next week: What you should look for, even demand, in your personal computer of '93.

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