POWER USER

Does anyone agree on the worst ideas of the last millennium?

John McCormick

Most people celebrated the new millennium last Jan. 1, but the purists won't start celebrating until 2001. In my view, computer users should push for a big party this New Year's Eve. After all, most of us were working late last year and didn't get a chance to party. It's time, now that the long hangover from the year 2000 remediation effort has faded.

I'm going to kick off my own personal celebration with a look at the worst of the last millennium in the computer field.

' Microsoft Windows 3.1. Probably the only person who loves it is Bill Gates, the world's richest man.

I bet Windows 3.1 ranks near the top of his best of the millennium list, just below MS-DOS. Contrary to what they may think in Redmond, Wash., Windows 3.1 was a terrible operating environment.

' The mouse. Xerox Corp. invented it at the fabled Palo Alto Research Center in California but apparently had second thoughts and left it to Apple Computer Inc. and Microsoft Corp. to foist the rodent on users.

No one has ever satisfactorily explained to me just what is so bad about the keyboard that even word processing users should be forced to keep jumping on and off just to navigate a document.

' Those 5 1/4-inch floppy diskettes. They're low in storage capacity, susceptible to damage and ugly to boot.

You can't even use them in place of skeet pigeons. They just don't fling well.

' Spam. It's worse than telemarketing because I have no choice but to use my computer.

I seldom answer my telephone and, fortunately, telemarketers don't leave voice mail. If you have a good e-mail filter and want to know what the fuss is all about, sign up for a free Microsoft HotMail account. You'll be getting a flood of X-rated invitations in no time. Why Microsoft considers this attractive to customers, I don't know.

I receive a flood of press release spam every day. Strangely enough, many senders deny this is spam, despite their habit of sending unsolicited messages in bulk to lists of strangers in order to sell something.

' Viruses. 'Nuff said.

' Adobe Portable Document Format. No matter how often I use it, I can never get used to the fact that, unlike every other program, it won't move to the next page via the page up/page down keys, or left and right via the left/right arrows.

No user should have to put up with this, not to mention the big PDF file size and the difficulty of converting it back to usable ASCII. Come on, who ever imagined that text marking would require pressing Ctrl-Shift-4? Maybe IRS forms are a great use for PDF, but why do so many people think PDF is suitable for plain text documents?

' Cellular phones. Yes, I've got one, but I use strictly as an emergency device, not as an excuse to spend every second connected.

' Unix. I still have a shelf full of documentation for four different versions of Unix, all of which were supposed to run on an IBM PS/2 Model 80'remember it? None of them would install.

' DVD. The CD-ROM was one of the top inventions of the century, but DVD for data storage merely encourages incredibly bloated software.

''Standards committees. One would be wonderful and two or three are almost a necessity, but there are hundreds, more likely thousands of them.

The only thing they produce is confusion. The numerous competing technology standards committees include but are not limited to: American National Standards Institute, European Computer Manufacturers Association, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, International Society for Measurement and Control, International Standards Organization, International Telecommunications Union, Internet Engineering Task Force, National Institute of Standards and Technology, National Television Standards Committee, Object Management Group, Video Electronics Standards Association, Wireless Application Protocol Forum, World Wide Web Consortium, and even the IEEE's Accredited Standards Committee, which is sort of a standards committee for standards committees.

Different strokes

Some of these groups set standards, others try to organize standards efforts and still other, less formal groups try to get together on a nonstandard standard in hopes of forcing others to adopt it.

Then there are the de facto, noncommittee standards that just happened without any real attempt to force them on everyone. They include Microsoft's widely used DOC file format, Rich Text Format, Lotus Development Corp.'s WK1 format and TCP/IP. I haven't even skimmed the surface of language standards and nonstandards such as C, Basic, Java, X and so on. Intel Corp. is as much a standard as it is a company.

The biggest standard of them all, the PC itself, was once just a new product from IBM Corp. I might have missed it, but I can't recall any committee that met and declared the PC a world standard.

Here are three quotes to ponder if you ever thought of starting or joining a standards committee:

'One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important.''Bertrand Russell

'You got to be very careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there' and 'When you come to a fork in the road, take it.''Yogi Berra

Maybe that's the reason we have so many committees.

Do you concur with this list? Take exception? Was your most-hated invention left out? Stay tuned, this is all subjective. Send your own worst/best computer gems and if I get enough, I'll run them in a year-end column.

John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with computers since the early 1960s. E-mail him at poweruser@mail.usa.com.

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