The ultimate program? (word processing, spreadsheet, and communications disks) (evaluation) James F. Yerges.
The Ultimate Program?
The advent of the second generation microcomputers--machines with 16-bit architecture, capable of addressing as many as a million bytes of memory--has significant implications for business. These machines are so fast and powerful that they tend to invalidate the traditional distinctions between micro, mini, and mainframe computers.
This explosion of new hardware has caught the applications software developers with their trousers belted somewhere near the knees. They haven't quite figured out what to do with a "minimainframe' so "surprisingly affordable' that it can be planted on the individual business executive's desk like a dedicated digitial security blanket.
The trendy buzzword these days in micro software development circles is the "integrated work station' (IWS). The compatible "Easy' packages from IUS appear to be a nod in this direction. The integrated MBA package from CMS probably augurs the wave of the future.
I got a call recently from Bob Cretin, the principal mover and shaker at Bob's Software, a local applications house. Bob asked me to evaluate his new entry into the IWS race--Total Systems Concept. At first I demurred, pointing out that I am not, by vocation, a software developer, and that my programming skills are rather rudimentary. I am running almost exclusively canned software on my IBM PC.
"Not to worry,' Bob assured me. Total Systems Concept is aimed squarely at the businessman with little or no "computer literacy.' Bob is a believer in the "transparent machine.' Anything that requires more than ten minutes to learn fails to qualify as user-friendly in Bob's "operating system.' Besides, I was the only guy he knew who had been able to scrounge up the six grand for a PC and letter quality printer (LQP).
A total System
TSC, as Bob calls it, is a software set consisting of: word processing (Tedious-Writer); spreadsheet (VisiCrash); graphics (Win-Lose-or-Draw); and communications (WrongNumber).
The package shipped is on single-sided 5 1/4 floppy disks. I questioned Bob about the wisdom of marketing a system, obtensibly for novice computer-philes, that required so much unprompted disk swapping. Bob explained that he is pretty much locked into using ten diskettes until he can solve his media error problems.
I should explain that Bob uses his own proprietary disk media. In an effort to exploit the opportunity of the moment, he has initiated a hardware and supplies division, Bob's Enterprises. He believes that stringent cost controls and competitive pricing are going to separate the survivors from the also-rans in the field of computing supplies.
I will admit that Bob's diskette prices are attractive. At $1.89 a dozen, few other vendors can touch him. However, I have heard it suggested that he has had to make certain compromises in quality to achieve this remarkable economy. Consider, for example, the diskette envelopes and jackets. They look remarkably like the brown kraft paper used in supermarket shopping bags.
On the back side of the envelopes, there are little swatches of what certainly appears to be Scotch Magic Transparent Tape. In fact, the Pastor at St. Bjorn Lutheran Church, in Waunakee, once mentioned to me (more or less in passing) that he thought Ol' Bob might be running some sort of sweat shop up at the Rest Home . . . dozens of old people, frantically cutting and folding and taping supermarket shopping bags . . . but, hey, that's just idle gossip and has nothing to do with this software review.
Word processing is the mortar between the building blocks of any IWS package. So I first turned my attention to Tedious Writer. The documentation is, in a word, unique. Perhaps a better word would be concise. It is handwritten, in #2 lead pencil, on the back of the diskette envelopes. Bob says that this approach is more user-oriented, because it eliminates the hassle of separate documentation, which can easily be misplaced, or even lost in mailing.
Bob has, in his words, "busted his cheeks' to minimize the agony of the first-time computer user. He has attempted to make it as simple as possible for the experienced typist to transfer his or her existing skills directly to the computer.
Most of the WP programs currently on the market claim to be either file-oriented or page-oriented. According to Bob, Tedious Writer is line-oriented. The word-wrap scheme is a good example. When the cursor reaches column 73 of the 80-column display, the IBM PC speaker sounds a remarkably bell-like tone, warning the typist that only seven spaces remain. Striking the return key moves the cursor to the first space of the next line down. According to Bob, this gives the data entry technician (DET) exceptional control over the right margin of the text, including forced hyphenation.
The indentation procedure is equally human-factors-oriented for the converted typist. The DET simply strikes the spacebar five times before typing the first character of a new paragraph. Alternatively, the tab key can be set to perform the same function with a single keystroke.
The pagination procedure is of the what-you-see-is-what-you-get school. First, the DET fills the 25-line screen of the standard IBM PC display with text. Then, a sheet of paper is inserted into the LQP. (I used a 25 cps C. Itoh Starwriter, but it probably doesn't make a heck of a lot of difference.) Then, the arrow up key and the PrtSc key are pressed simultaneously, to dump the entire contents of the screen onto the page.
Next, additional lines of text are typed onto the screen until the original 25th line scrolls off the top, and the paper dump procedure is repeated. According to Bob, page length and top and bottom margins are totally under the control of the DET by virtue of hands-on control of the sheet of paper in the LQP.
I asked Bob what induced him to utilize this countertrendy approach. "Experience,' replied Bob. This algorithm enjoyed years of success, according to Bob, on the legendary IBM Selectric. Even before that, it was successfully executed on the pioneer IBM Executive.
I can't quarrel with the fundamental premise on which Bob designed this piece of software. It was very easy to conceptualize. However, I found it somewhat tedious to execute. I would have been willing to invest a bit more time in learning macro-instructions initially, in order to save time and effort later on. But that is just my personal viewpoint. I could be wrong.
Consider this: Bob doesn't believe that the ten extra function keys on the PC keyboard are a good idea for the business user. In fact, Bob's Enterprises offers a prefabricated cardboard mask to cover almost all of the non-standard keys not found on a typical typewriter. (The Simplifier, from Bob's Enterprises, P.O. Box 71, Waunakee, WI 53597. $8.95. Send cash or money order--no personal checks.)
I asked Bob if the package uses DOS files, or some other scheme. He explained that ITC doesn't have a file system yet, but it should be coming in an update pretty soon.
Graphics is an area in which I have very little experience, and even less equipment, but I am currently lusting after several of the multi-color plotters that have reached the marketplace at under $2500. So I decided to give Win-Lose-or-Draw a try. At least I could watch it strut its stuff on the CRT.
Once again, in this program, Bob has placed great emphasis on immediate accessibility for the first-time user. The screen represents a master 80-columns wide and 25-rows high. The cursor can be moved to any location within this coordinate array with the four cursor control arrow keys. (There is a sort of a little trap door in the cardboard Simplifier mask that opens to expose these extra keys.)
Any of the standard keyboard symbols may be inserted at any location by moving the cursor to the desired position and striking the appropriate key. This, according to Bob, gives complete flexibility in the design of graphs, charts, and so forth, without the use of confusing or difficult curve fitting or plotting routines. Once again, the arrow-up and PrtSc keys are pushed simultaneously to begin printing.
I set the graphics software aside, and turned my attention to the spreadsheet program. Frankly, when I booted the VisiCrash program, I felt that uneasy sense of embarrassment that I experience when face-to-face with a blatant ripoff. This spreadsheet program is pretty obviously a look-alike to that Gran'Daddy of them all, Visi-what's-its-name. I quickly keyed in a fairly trivial example problem, just to watch the piece work.
The first time I asked for a recomputation of the sheet, I was rewarded with a display as surprising as it was aesthetically fulfilling. Waves of alphanumerics cascaded down the screen. A frantic, frenzied scrolling occurred, employing every character in the PC repertoire. And the colors! The incredible diversity of shades and hues was breathtaking.
I found this especially interesting, since I have only a standard monochrome display.
I could easily have watched that display for hours, but I began to detect the tell-tale scent of smoldering bakelite, so I stopped the program execution by striking the Ctrl and Break keys simultaneously. The PC took less than half an hour to cool down to where it was safe to use again. I don't think the slight thermally-induced warping of the boards is going to be a significant problem.
I must express certain reservations about the communications program, WrongNumber. I booted the first disk, and as I waited for the first prompt to follow the Bob's Software logo, the disk drive began to chatter furiously. I have never seen such emphatic software incompatibility. The standard Tandon-built drive sort of puckered up its little trap door, emitted an unmistakably anthropomorphic sound (sort of a ptooi!) and violently regurgitated the diskette, which struck me near the corner of my right eye, inflicting a nasty paper cut. I did not attempt to re-boot the disk.
After I got the bleeding stopped, I called Bob and asked him about this bug. He said that it would be fixed in a future version, which would also include a lot more of the features found in other packages. For example, there will be a database called Misfiler, and even an arcade-style game called HemaRoids (Bob's spelling). I asked him when we could expect to see the update, and he explained that he couldn't be sure. Computerland East said he couldn't use their IBM PC demo unit anymore unless he bought something.
At $18.95, Total Systems Concept is definitely competitively priced. However, I would like to see some of the promised refinements before I could wholeheartedly endorse the package. I understand the importance of timing in securing a share of the market, but I am afraid that Bob may be trying to move too fast.
I also think he should consider releasing versions for more of the popular machines. At the moment, TSC is available only for the IBM PC, the Instructional Assembly Language Simulator at Madison Area Computing Center, and the Hybrid Computer on the tenth floor of the Engineering Research Building of the University of Wisconsin. I am afraid that this is going to limit demand for the package.
Products: Bob's Software Total Systems Concept (computer program)