Power User: Power User looks back to 1982 and forward to 2022

John McCormick

As GCN reaches its 20th year of bringing IT and product news to agencies, I am near my fourth decade of working with computers. My stint in this space has been the most enjoyable of all.

I especially enjoy reader mail. Even more than my technology experience at various levels of government, your communications help me target reports, columns and answers to other readers' queries.

I don't have to tell you that business and government approach IT very differently. I doubt most General Motors employees are still using Microsoft Windows 95, but responses to my columns repeatedly confirm that government offices are slow to jump to the latest technology.

In general, that's not a bad thing. But it is too bad that the FBI can't easily share images among branch offices and that most Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers have outdated systems.

Office work seldom requires the latest bells and whistles, however. I've always favored keeping what functions well rather than investing a lot of time and money in new, not-yet-debugged operating systems and applications.

Over the many years I've been writing this column, I've often urged readers to get the most out of their current hardware and software'the opposite of columnists in other publications, who look only at the latest and greatest.

The true mark of a power user is not buying the best but getting the best out of what's available. It's the computer equivalent of politics: the art of the possible.

To keep this perspective, I work with OSes and apps that are one or two years old. Right now I've fully migrated to Windows 2000, although I do have Win9x on a couple of systems for reference.

In addition, I have the latest versions of Windows XP Home and Professional, plus some Microsoft Corp. beta products for testing. But most of my readers use Windows 2000 every day, so I do the same.

Over the years I've had the privilege of talking with a lot of you online, from scientists and base commanders to field workers out in the middle of nowhere with old equipment and a single phone line.

Some have been kind enough to say my column was one of the reasons they subscribe to GCN, and I thank them. Although I certainly don't feel old, I do recognize that I'm a bit set in my ways, sort of a one-man bureaucracy. Sometimes experience does count.

One thing about having started out writing programs in machine language is that I can see what progress has been made. Early in the PC revolution, software reporting as often as not involved confirming that something actually existed. Today there is little vaporware, although vapor updates are still common.

I've seen many new designs come and go. I never much trusted single-source, proprietary hardware like that from Apple Computer Inc. or my old employer, Wang Laboratories Inc. IBM Corp.'s PS/2 initiative flopped, but never forget that IBM invented the PC we still use today. I liked the PS/2, even if its only real legacy has been a keyboard and mouse connector. I'll let OS/2 rest in peace and not comment.

In my view, the greatest advances of the past 20 years have been CD-ROM publishing, the Web, Section 508 accessibility, basic word processors and spreadsheets, unified messaging services and telecommuting.

The worst advances include object-oriented languages that make it so easy to program, people are turning out a lot of garbage. Plus e-mail spam that gives a bad name to that fine Hormel meat product. And bloated OSes and office suites, clip art, unnecessary and untested software updates, speech recognition software that can't live up to the hype and small print in software user agreements.

The biggest failure is artificial intelligence. After 30 years, it's so elusive that virtually everyone has given up developing it. Speech and handwriting recognition have succeeded only as simple pattern-matching algorithms that require massive processor power. The ultimate test of AI isn't to simulate a medical diagnostician, which was done decades ago, but rather to read a doctor's illegible handwriting.

As a writer who hates to redo work, here's what I wish for in a word processor: a simple way to program automatic backups on multiple disk drives in Microsoft Word. I could do it easily in some other programs. I'd ask for really useful speech recognition, but that's well beyond the current state of the art.

Meanwhile, I hope to be still contributing a column for GCN's 40th anniversary while bemoaning the bugs in Windows 2022 and struggling with an old PC's holographic storage and meager 300T of memory.

Here's to the next 20.

John McCormick is a free-lance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at [email protected].


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