Bank Holiday. Time for all sensible types to loll around in the hot sun, sipping cold beer... which is why I'm in The Flying Vicar's (see last week) front room, busily explaining how frames work in Microsoft Publisher. MS Publisher is one of the most usable programs we've seen at PC Magazine -- we've given it various prizes for its usability, and compared to some of the infinitely painful rubbish to which we subject our guinea pigs (*) it is a model of compassion and gentleness.
It is instructive, therefore, to see TFV approach the software. He knows how to format text in a word processor, and proceeds to try and do the same -- tabs and spaces, basically -- in Publisher. When he tries to drop a graphic onto the page (after I'd shown him that you could cut and paste between applications), it hit all this strange white space and the text went everywhere. Quite dramatic.
It took me about five minutes to explain the basics. For all its ease of use, Publisher just didn't expect its users to try and do things in quite such a strange way, and didn't react properly. It's all very well expecting a tabula rasa (**), but people have bad habits (well, he's a vicar so you can't really call them bad habits. Just habits) and software should really cope. It's possible to analyse what's going on and suggest alternatives -- the next step for wizards, I suppose, will be to apply more and more AI and realise when the results are unlikely to be what the punter wants.
It's not easy, this usability thing.
(* We have Usability Labs where real people are incarcerated, after being dragged in off the streets, and made to perform certain demeaning tasks. Our trained psychological warfare division watches them from behind one-way mirrors, occasionally applying small electric shocks or subliminal signals of terror, making notes about how difficult each task seemed to be. Works a treat, and means our reviews aren't dependent on what computer journalists -- never entirely typical human beings -- think of things. If you think you'd like to take part in this sort of thing and can spare some time in Central London, drop some mail to Alison Sweeney. I lied about the electric shocks, by the way).
(** Tabula Rasa -- blank slate. Also the name of a piece by Estonian composer Arvo Part, whose new CD, Litany, is out now and very fine indeed if you like contemplative choral music in the Orthodox tradition)
Feels like Monday. Ugh. Follow, miserably, the online discussion that's resulted from The Observer's remarkable piece on how Demon Internet is shovelling Disgusting Filth into the nation's homes. Read the piece: it is hard to know where to begin when the wrong end of the stick has been so rudely grasped. Feel particularly sorry for the Demon guy whose photograph has been printed alongside allegations of remarkable ferocity, and feel something akin to anger towards The Observer. I used to read it religiously; stopped a few years ago, but had hopes that the Guardian's purchase of the paper, together with Will Hutton's editorship, would revitalise the old lady. Nope.
In effect, the Metropolitan Police has decided that a number of newsgroups are to be banned -- including, terrifyingly, stuff like alt.homosexuality. You don't have to be a bleeding-heart liberal to feel very uneasy about this. Demon has said that it doesn't think the Met can do this, and won't quietly comply. The Observer has decided that this makes Demon a hard-core pornography company. Suspect that the real issues behind events are various power groups jockeying for position as Chief Internet Inquisitor -- a role that the Home Office is undoubtedly going to award at some point -- and the Observer's sales figures.
Disaster! Spill Diet Coke on my US Robotics Pilot, and in shaking the thing vigorously to remove the surplus stickiness manage to dislodge the little plastic stylus. This launches itself into the air, looking for all the world like a tiny cruise missile, and soars majestically over Production into the wide blue yonder. Don't have time to go looking for it while my Pilot gently weeps: rapidly stick the PDA into its replication holster and press the button. Fortunately -- or perhaps because it's been designed well -- the device happily uploads my entire life into the PC despite being sopping wet with tooth-rotting liquid. At least my data's safe.
Clean the thing up, and improvise a stylus with a propelling pencil from which the lead's been removed. All is fine, except that the tracking of the pen tip is around a centimetre away from the point at which it actually makes contact. Very disconcerting; all my appointments are two hours early and when I try to find the phone number for the bank I end up calling Anchovies 'R' Us.
Eventually end up taking the Pilot apart, cleaning the sticky residue from around the display with lighter fluid -- a far superior liquid for this purpose than meths -- and some of Max the Photographer's Kleenex (don't ask). To my great delight, the Pilot is as good as new after this emergency surgery; my data returns from the PC and it's as if the accident never happened.
Find the stylus eventually, embedded in a passing sheepdog.
Went out to The Good Mixer, Camden's notoriously trendy muso pub, to meet Peter I, an old colleague, drinking buddy and mixing desk designer. We like this place, I because it is close to home, stays open late and has good beer, and he because... well, where you get pop stars you get trendy bimbos. I need say no more. Being a good anorak, I soon manage to distract him from such contemplation and onto more meaty stuff about networks, chip design, digital signal processing and how to make a beer-proof Personal Digital Assistant.
He has some interesting things to say on all these points, but the most interesting one was the rumour that Novell may be dropping NetWare 3.12. As he put it, Novell is concentrating on the Green River/NetWare 4 versus NT 4 end of the market, and sees NetWare 3.12 as a rather tedious legacy system that just steals sales of the newer and far more sexy products (yes, he really did call an operating system sexy in a pub full of Brit Popettes. I despair). As a result, 3.12's days are numbered.
But, quoth Peter, the world is full of people who trust and love 3.12, and don't want to use anything else. They don't want the latest and greatest, they want solid, reliable, well-understood networking. Stop supporting these people and stop selling more of the same, and they're not going to automatically move up to your more advanced systems. It's not clear that Novell isn't about to shoot the last fatted calf on the menu and make an omelette of its golden eggs (that's enough mixed agricultural metaphors -- Ed). Shame: it's not clear that anyone else will take that niche market, and that's another scalp lost to the Demons of Redmond. We don't need that.
But we needed more beer. Conversation went downhill, and the last I saw of Peter was a blurred shape heading out towards the West End. Oh dear. If you ever see a man in a silly trilby hanging around in Los Locos, that's him. Just don't mention NetWare.
Out meeting Texas Instruments, or at least the bit of TI that makes chips. It's got a brand-new process for producing ASICs, that's Application Independent Integrated Circuits, electronic devices that companies can configure how they like, to do what they like. ASICs are the building blocks of electronics these days; you find them in everything. This new process can make transistors which are 0.18 uM -- that's micrometers -- across. You can get up to 125 million individual transistors this way on a standard sliver of silicon. Golly.
That's not the half of it. Because these things are so small they take almost no power and go terrifically fast. Mobile phones that take 90 per cent less power than today; wristwatch computers that recognise your voice and run from tiny batteries; PDAs that can probably run your life to the point at which your mother's redundant (and are beer-proof); the list of potential products is endless. Most of the early excitement is for high-speed datacomms, 'cos one of these chips can switch up to 40 gigabits per second. That's 660,000 phone calls. On one chip. Another bit of the cheap gigabit global network infrastructure falls into place.
Very impressive. Even more impressive is the fact that the marketing man in the meeting knows what he's talking about, and mere impressiveness is nowhere near enough to describe my feelings when it turns out he knows all the history of Sinclair Research (for whom I once worked). Those stories can wait for another day -- the JoyBurger, the shrapnel display, TR4... ah, happy days.
I return to the office, secure in the knowledge that TI is a Good Thing and, as always, determined not to do a scrap of computing over the weekend. One day, I'll get a life...