New Year's resolutions for computer industry

January 03, 1994|By Joshua Mills | Joshua Mills,New York Times News Service

Rather than storming the podium to tell customers, suppliers and shareholders of their glorious plans for the new year, many computer industry executives seemed content to let 1993 slip away with a whimper.

So please allow a visitor taking up several weeks' residence in this space to offer some thoughts on what the computer industry should resolve to do in the new year.

It's a cut-throat world out there, with hardware makers still reeling from price wars.

Now more than ever, no company can afford a reputation for providing misleading or incomplete information or botched products. So the industry should consider these steps:

Form an industry SWAT team to smooth out "hand-shaking." Is there a more vexing problem for computer users, from corporate information managers down to beginners, than getting the printer and the computer to greet and work with each other?

Forget my neighbor, who couldn't make his printer work because he hadn't linked the printer and the computer with a cable.

Even experts sometimes can't sort through the muddle. Dr. Robert Sideli, director of administrative information services at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan, oversees more than 1,000 computers. "We've got mainframes, midsize computers and a whole family of desktops from apples to oranges," Sideli said recently.

"The users are working at PCs, accessing mainframes and servers, and they just want to say, 'Print!' and have the printer go to work. But if you're sitting at a desktop accessing a financial system in a mainframe, and the screen says, 'Press F10 to print,' what does the mainframe know about F10? There isn't a simple standard that goes across all platforms. We need one."

Label products completely. It's not just corporate information managers who buy your peripherals and software. So when designing your packaging and promotional material, keep in mind all the small-business beginners, the willfully ignorant and the out-and-out dummies for whom a whole range of books is now published.

The box containing Microsoft Corp.'s MS-DOS 6.0 says on the front panel, "The easy way to double your disk."

But inside, the customer learns from the small print of the user's guide that the extent to which the hard disk and its files can be compressed by the software's Double Space command depends on the number of files, the type of files, the graphics portion of the files.

Are these happy customers, who after plunking down $49.95 for a disk-compression program, find that when all is said and done disk capacity has grown by only 50 percent, rather than the promised 100 percent? And quantitative concerns aside, what about the compression program's difficulties in running smoothly within many computers?

And what about Creative Technology Ltd., which makes the popular Sound Blaster series of sound cards? We took home a Sound Blaster sound board (for $99) after studying the box to make sure our computer was compatible and met all of Creative Technology's listed requirements: 512 kilobytes of random access memory, DOS 2.0 or higher and a compatible graphics board.

So with the usual mix of apprehension and glee, we took apart our personal computer and installed the board.

While the installation seemed to go smoothly, the Sound Blaster produced no discernible sounds. After rechecking the hardware JTC and reinstalling the software "driver," still no sound. So we called Creative Technology's technical support staff.

"Are you using headphones or speakers?" he asked.

Neither, I replied.

He burst out laughing. Sound Blaster requires either external speakers or headphones. That requirement is not mentioned on the box, nor in the installation manual.

On the one hand we felt stupid, and on the other, outraged. Is it unreasonable to expect a company to list all the components required for using its product properly?

Test goods thoroughly before going to market. Microsoft, which does so many things right, really made a hash of portions of DOS 6.0 -- as evident from the howls of customers whose computers (( crashed when they used Double Space to compress their hard disks or Memory Maker to rationalize their computer's memory allocation or Smart Drive to establish a memory cache.

Sure, only a small percentage of customers were affected. And sure, Microsoft recognized the problems fairly quickly and rushed out a "step-up" version, 6.2, that solved all the problems. But tell a small-business owner whose hard disk was crashed by DOS 6.0 how nice 6.2 is, and you won't find a happy Microsoft customer.

The technical support that Microsoft provided over the phone to DOS 6.0 customers also left a lot to be desired, with several employees of Microsoft over a period of days engaging in a sort of mini-"Rashomon" explication of the program's problems.

The first technical rep on one particular case said, "Sure sounds like the problem is the CONFIG.SYS file; the items must be listed in the wrong order. That's why the C drive works but the D drive doesn't."

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