New computer products are for the adventurous

January 18, 1993|By Phillip Robinson | Phillip Robinson,Knight-Ridder News Service

The first computer rule for the new year is not to use anything new. Mind you, this isn't a new rule, and it doesn't apply just to computers. Computers just seem to magnify the problem.

Any hardware or software needs time to shake out bugs. Some might simply have awkward command menus. Others might erase your files. A few hardware bugs have even managed to set a computer on fire.

But you can be sure the bugs are in there. No matter how long the product has been in development, no matter how many alpha (inside the company) or beta (experts outside the company) testers tromp through a program or PC, bugs will remain.

Why?

First, because of engineering complexity. Programs are incredibly complex, with thousands or millions of lines of instructions that must not err by so much as a semicolon in place of a colon.

Second, because of configuration complexity. Programs and computers are running in more and more complex environments. It isn't one standard PC running a single standard program. It's thousands of different PC models from hundreds of manufacturers, equipped with a thousand revisions of the operating system software, stuffed with a panoply of utility programs, running several complex programs at once, while connected to a thousand different peripherals.

Third, because of greed (from companies to make money and users to have more powerful stuff quickest). Companies have a huge incentive to get programs out the door too soon. The first program to market often captures the largest share of sales. As long as it doesn't have any terminal, work-destroying bugs, the computer company may just decide to "ship." Users are always pushing companies to improve, upgrade, revolutionize, all ASAP. This confluence in effect makes all the early buyers the "gamma" testers, finding the biggest and baddest bugs left after development.

This rule has a concrete example from the end of '92: Microsoft's new data base for Windows, Access.

Microsoft's Access

Microsoft should be better able than any other company to turn )) out a bug-free program, right? After all, the firm is larger than all its competitors combined. It has stock worth more than General Motors. It hired 2,500 people last year, during the depth of the recession. Although data bases are one of the few program areas Microsoft hasn't dominated, it recently bought all the technology of the famous Fox Software data base company, and it has been working on Access for years.

In the end, though, faced with a number of upstarts in the Windows data base business (such as Approach, Dataease Express and FileMaker Pro for Windows) and the imminent shipping of Borland's Paradox for Windows (Borland owns both Paradox and dBASE, the two best-selling data bases), Microsoft shipped Access. In fact, it not only shipped Access, but offered a heavily discounted sale price of $99.99.

Clearly, Microsoft hoped to flood a market that was hungry for both power and ease, for a data base that would run under Windows alongside Word and WordPerfect for Windows, Excel, Quattro and 1-2-3 for Windows. That's where the new software is appearing on PCs, and the data base slot was pretty much open for the taking.

Then came the bad news. Access was powerful, but it wasn't easy. The name would imply "open," but instead, Access requires some serious data base technology understanding from the user. It doesn't follow the standard of "object-oriented" programs that let you click the right mouse button on any on-screen element to learn what that element is and what it can do. Even the programmers who hope to use Access as the foundation for custom data bases may get lost, trying to mentally merge all the little bits of code and directions that Access won't show in one big display.

Next came the really bad news. Bugs, big hairy ones. Not simply those awkward and confusing design problems, but the program crashing, losing data and corrupting data.

At the same time, there are probably tens of thousands of Access buyers happy with the great deal they got on a potent program, not having encountered any bugs at all. I'm one of the users who did not encounter problems, but reports in the trade press and complaints on online bulletin boards provide enough evidence to scare me.

To anyone who asks, "Should I try this hot new thing?" I say: If you like adventure and are a technology nut, go right ahead. But if you're just interested in getting work done, avoid any new program or computer for at least the first six months. Then read and ask around to see if it is safe. Great power peppered with venomous bugs just isn't worth it. You're better off with last year's technology, or even something (heresy) from prehistory, two or three years ago.

(Phillip Robinson analyzes and writes about computers. You can reach him at (415) 331-3973 or at P.O. Box 1357, Sausalito, Calif. 94966 or on the MCI Mail e-mail service as "probinson" at mailbox 327-8909.)

VITAL STATISTICS

Access, for IBM-compatible running Windows. $695 (discounted to $99.99 until Jan. 31). From Microsoft Corp., One Microsoft Way, Redmond, Wash. 98052-6399. (800) 426-9400.

*

On a scale of one to four, with one indicating poor and four indicating excellent, here's how the product rates:

Performance 1

Ease of use 2

Value 1

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