It's time to boot up the Iffy Awards subject to upgrade, of course

Personal Computers

January 05, 1998|By STEPHEN MANES | STEPHEN MANES,New York Times News Service

MAY I HAVE the virtual envelopes, please? We hereby present the Iffy Technology Awards for 1997. The Iffies get their name from the fact that, like almost everything else in personal computing, they are subject to revision, upgrade or obsolescence at any moment and are not guaranteed, even if you download all the latest drivers.

Recognition Award: Naturally Speaking from Dragon Systems Inc. and the less successful Via Voice from the International Business Machines Corp. are far from perfect, but they make it possible to talk to your computer in a normal way and watch most of the words appear correctly on the screen. Dictation software that can transcribe normal speech faster than most people can type is the year's most surprising and important technological achievement.

Furry Logic Award: Microsoft's Actimates Interactive Barney, a talking plush purple toy, has been known to charm even the most hardened Microsoft bashers. Too bad the extra-cost software is not quite so clever.

Lowered Horizons Award: Cheaper PCs. For the first time, computer makers have been willing to cut prices to the bone on machines that will serve many people quite well. Even the long-standing practice of maintaining prices on higher-end computers has begun to crumble, making top-of-the-line units cheaper than ever.

Thanks for the Memories Award: RAM prices. Adding random access memory has usually been the cheapest way to improve a computer's performance, and prices for that have dropped to lows that were unimaginable two years ago.

Best Performance in a Supporting Role: Ink-jet printers, particularly those from Hewlett-Packard and Seiko Epson's Epson America. Though relatively cheap to buy, these versatile units can be somewhat costly to operate, but their text and photographic output just keep getting better and better. We Can All Get Along Award: The recent agreement to a single standard for so-called 56K modems. It will take a few months for the dust to settle; just hope that if you own one of these modems, it can be upgraded easily to the single standard.

Wait Till Next Year Award: DVD-ROM. In 1997, almost nothing broke right for this still-promising technology. Most hardware performed unimpressively and remained incompatible with some existing formats, and industry rifts over rewriteable and pay-per-play versions presaged future incompatibilities. Original software was virtually nonexistent. By mid-1998, cheap DVD-ROM drives might begin to supplant CD-ROM drives, but predictions about this technology have a history of overoptimism.

Wait Till the Year After That Award: High-speed home connections to the Internet. Cable modems and new technologies based on the telephone remain unavailable to most of the potential market. The situation seems unlikely to change quickly.

Overreaching and Underachievement Award: Digital cameras. When it comes to picture quality, even the best consumer models remain no match for point-and-shoot film cameras costing hundreds of dollars less. And thanks to a sneaky way of counting pixels (one per color instead of one per data point) that is used only in this segment of the market, the true resolution delivered by most digital cameras is actually one-third of what they claim.

Get It Right the First Time Award: Shared among many companies in the hardware and software industries that release products with known problems and then offer fixes on the World Wide Web. Pray that this insidious practice does not extend to such spheres as medicine and transportation.

Hope This Helps Award: Shared among many companies that have moved information from printed manuals and hard-disk files to the World Wide Web. A special citation for Microsoft: At a recent press demonstration, a product manager showed how the new help system for the forthcoming Windows 98 might advise a user with a broken Internet connection to check out information on a Web site.

Please Don't Remind Me Award: Software displays a notice every day, week or month to inform you that you have not registered your purchase but offers no way to silence the unwanted reminders.

Remember, these Iffies are merely version 1.0. Bug fixes beginning with versions 1.0a are likely to be appearing every few days on the World Wide Web throughout the new year.

Pub Date: 1/05/98

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