Many of the new computer softwares serve no useful purpose

Personal Computers

February 24, 1997|By Stephen Manes | Stephen Manes,New York Times News Service

SOME PEOPLE go to auto races in the hope of seeing a spectacular crash. The rest of us sit at our computers.

At the annual Demo 97 conference, much of the fun is in watching the people who make and sell computer products attempt to emerge unscathed from public demonstration of their unfinished wares.

The unexpected is always expected at this conference, but this month's sessions seemed to produce fewer stuck hourglass icons, dropped network connections and monumental disasters than usual.

This year the greater failures seemed to be related to conception and imagination rather than to execution.

Products often appeared to have been designed simply because they could be, rather than to fill any real need or solve any pressing problem.

For example, a company called Compressent Inc. showed a product called Chromafax for sending and receiving faxes in color. It essentially works only if both the sender and the receiver have the company's software.

There is an international standard for color faxing, and this product adheres to it, so if color fax machines ever catch on, this might one day be a useful technology.

But, given the increasing ability to attach files to e-mail messages, there are few advantages in being able to send color material at the low resolutions that fax transmissions produce.

Easyphoto Phone from Storm Technology Inc. is equally puzzling.

If you have the right kind of modem, it lets you

"photo-conference," meaning send someone a photo and talk TC about it at the same time over a single phone connection.

The software comes at no extra cost with the company's photo scanners, but a better solution might be to send the photo by e-mail and make a separate call to talk about it at your leisure.

A few products did not need big computers at all.

The Personal ATM from Verifone Inc. resembles a smaller version of the card-swipe machines found in business establishments.

It is designed to let you withdraw electronic "cash" from your bank account from your own home; put in a plastic "smart card," press a few buttons and "fill 'er up."

It could be handy for transactions such as phone calls and subway fares. But data stored in a fashion that cannot be read by most existing machines is hardly cash.

Cash does not require you to find a special reader just to determine how much money is left in your wallet. And, depending on the system it ends up using (there are several), the card may well lack the privacy of the bank note, since transactions can easily be tracked to you.

In today's wired society, credit, debit and ATM cards have become virtual cash; in many parts of the world, even taxicabs are happy to accept them.

But the cards Verifone handed out at the conference showed how far they were from being cash; they were accepted in the bar and a few expensive shops that were given the special readers, but not in the gift shop that generated the low-cost transactions for which the cards presumably were designed.

If Verifone had only figured out a way of letting you use your color printer to produce legal tender, this might have been a breakthrough technology.

Sawbucks, nickels, dimes and quarters, however, can rest easy.

Much hoopla at the conference involved the fact that programs were written in the Java language or were compliant with an alphabet soup of industry standards.

The profusion of terms, of little importance to average users, led one vendor to state proudly and firmly of his product that "simply put, it is buzzword-compliant."

A few products and concepts showed promise.

The Eastman Kodak Co. showed a forthcoming video camera that connects to the universal serial bus (USB) ports found on many new machines.

Software lets it capture still and video images and put them into the memory of your computer; it will presumably be even more useful when portable machines as well as desktop units include USB ports.

Pinnacle Systems Inc. demonstrated a promising system for editing home videotapes.

But the higher-speed modems, DVD players and improved printers that are likely to be remembered as the most important technologies of the year were largely missing.

There were enough fiascoes to go around.

Realvideo, a video delivery technology from Progressive Networks, set the tone on opening day when a promised live connection with the company's chief executive in New York was not even attempted.

The video that was transmitted over standard phone lines included frequent breakup, intermittent voice synchronization and messages alluding to "slow system performance" and "Internet congestion."

A pre-release version, available at, requires nearly megabytes of hard disk space and works no better on my machine than it did at the show, in part because squeezing video down the phone lines is like trying to stuff a turkey with 20 pounds of dressing. A final version is due sometime in the spring.

And the closing session displayed carnage such as computer buzzards live for.

A dark-haired demonstrator with a brushy mustache extolled his system for using face recognition instead of computer passwords, and when his blond, clean-shaven colleague presented himself, the camera and program kept him out of the forbidden area.

But when he put on a bad dark wig and facial hair to give the system a real test?

Access permitted.

Pub Date: 2/24/97

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