Computing can waste time, but sometimes it's fun


January 25, 1993|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

Do you ever get annoyed at how much time you spend fooling with your PC, trying to get something to work?

You're not alone. According to a study by STB Accounting Systems, a Sausalito, Calif., software publisher, the average PC user spends 5.1 hours a week "futzing" with his or her computer.

Futzing, by the way, is defined as "unproductive time spent tinkering with computer software." The report itself is entitled "The PC Futz Factor."

Extrapolating the survey results to the nation as a whole, the folks at STB concluded that 25 million PC users spend 5 billion hours a year futzing with their computers, at an estimated cost to American business of $100 billion.

Worse yet, STB's figures don't include time spent hardware futzing (try installing a new video board if you really want to kill a few hours).

Before you start writing anguished letters to your congressman, consider that this survey was conducted as much for its entertainment value as for its statistical accuracy. It involved a "self-selecting" sample, which means users had to return a questionnaire to be included. This tends to skew the sample toward the crazies.

But even if the results are skewed, let's say by a factor of five, there's still an incredible amount of futzing going on.

According to the survey, the biggest chunk of futzing time involved waiting -- for programs to run, for reports to print out, or for technical support types who put you on indefinite hold. The next biggest waste was the time people spend checking their reports and charts to make sure they look pretty -- something that just didn't happen when the only thing we had was a Selectric typewriter.

The scary thing is that the report doesn't document in any detail the amount of time people voluntarily spend futzing. Tinkering. Tweaking. Just playing with their computers for the sake of playing with them.

Let's face it folks, the computer is one of the world's greatest toys. You couldn't have much fun with the old Selectric, but today, the same gadget that produced this month's sales report can also transport you to the world of Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards.

Even more insidious is the opportunity that today's software gives you to play little games with the way your computer looks and operates. Publishers have even developed a new term for this genre: "Utilitainment."

This mongrelization combines entertainment with utility. Utility programs used to be little pieces of code that improved the performance of your computer: fast file copiers and viewers, directory managers, printer controllers and other basic stuff.

But thanks to Microsoft Windows -- the graphical environment that replaces all those nasty commands no one can remember with a picture of a desktop and cute little icons representing your programs and files -- utility software has run wonderfully amok.

Consider IconMakeIt, from Moon Valley Software, the latest in a series of programs designed to do perverted things to the icons on your desktop. By using the slick utility programs in this $49.95 package, you can replace the stodgy little pictures of word processors, telephones, printers and spreadsheets that come with your software with really neat stuff, such as tap-dancing California raisins that sing the Hallelujah Chorus when you click your mouse button on them.

There's a well-designed icon editor, a mini-graphics program that lets you draw and modify the tiny icons; an animation studio, which lets you string together a series of icons into a mini-movie that brings your icons to life; and an on-screen taping system that allows you to record sounds (if you have a sound board) and assign them to an icon as well as to various Windows functions such as dialog boxes, cancel buttons and help files.

And if you don't like the standard arrow, I-Bar and hourglass cursors that Windows uses, you can replace them, too. Who wouldn't love having a kangaroo that jumps around the screen instead of a dreary old I-Bar to mark your place in your spreadsheet?

There's a ready-made library of icons, animations, sounds and cursors. You can use them as they are, modify them, or make your own. You don't even need a sound board to play the sound files that come with the program, although the quality of the PC's speaker leaves something to be desired.

If IconMakeIt doesn't waste enough time, you can pick up the silliest single program I've seen in years -- the Energizer Bunny, from PC Dynamics. You're undoubtedly familiar with the little character who marches across the TV screen in those Eveready battery commercials, beating his drum.

This $24.95 utility puts the animated bunny on your computer screen, where he pops up from time to time, struts his stuff, turns and says, "Still Going!" and marches off the screen, leaving you exactly where you were in your program.

You also get a variety of Energizer Bunny "wallpaper" files, which you can set up as the background of your desktop, and Bunny screen savers, which take over your display if you don't touch the keyboard or mouse for a while.

With programs like these to futz with, it's a wonder that anybody gets anything useful done. If you enjoy fooling with your computer, they're winners. If you're paying people who like to fool with programs like these, you'll put a contract out on the software publishers.

For information, contact Moon Valley Software, 21608 N. 20th Ave., Phoenix, Ariz. 85027; and PC Dynamics, 31332 Via Colinas, Suite 102, Westlake Village, Calif. 91362.

(Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.)

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