BY ARTHUR LEYENBERGER
I use a variety of PCs in my daily routine and get to use just about all of the leading MS-DOS software currently available. For months I have been using Microsoft's Excel spreadsheet program for a mailing list application, but between the size of the database and the slowness of windows, I had to try another alternative.
So I decided to use dBase IV, the premier database program for MS-DOS machines. The program comes on 14 disks, and the installation procedure took about 45 minutes. I got it up and running, but I was amazed at the size of the program. The whole procedure made me think of the ST, its software and GEM operating system.
Compared to GEM, Windows is an incomplete graphical interface. Although it's touted as the latest and greatest in the IBM world, it is not a finished product. For example, to change directories (folders) in GEM, you simply click on the directory name, and the computer goes to that directory and displays the list of files contained in it. Windows works the same way. However, to return to the parent directory, Windows requires you to type in its name, whereas GEM lets you click on the close button to move you back to preceding directory.
The more I think about this, the more I appreciate GEM. GEM allows you to navigate throughout the directories completely by using the mouse. You only need to use the keyboard for entering the name of new folders or changing the name of a file. In Windows, having to use the keyboard for something as simple as returning to the parent directory defeats the purpose for which the graphical interface was designed in the first place.
GEM also makes it easier to copy files. As you know, point, click and drag allows you to copy a file to any other directory or disk drive via the mouse. Windows requires that you select the files, choose COPY from a pulldown menu, then type in the destination drive or directory.
These are not the only differences between GEM and Windows. I use several of the GEM application programs on a PC such as Draw and Wordchart and have a good feeling for the time it takes to launch an application program from the GEM desktop. Likewise, I use several Windows-based programs such as Excel and Packrat (a personal information-management system) and can therefore compare the two operating system environments. Let me tell you, the speed of Windows is very slow compared to GEM.
Granted, Windows is a more sophisticated program, but there is no excuse for the delays it causes both in launching a program and during the operation of a Windows-based application program. As I understand it, Windows has a lot of redundant code. It is constantly loading segments of code, device drivers, etc., abandoning that code for the next chunk of code, and then loading some of the original code back in again as it needs it. Using Windows-based software on anything but a fast AT-clone or 386 machine is an exercise in frustration.
On the other hand, the GEM desktop and GEM-based application programs seem to be more elegantly written, at least as demonstrated by the superior performance of the programs as compared to those that use Windows. I'm speculating, but perhaps GEM has more built-in functions, and therefore the software can rely on these rather than have to duplicate the functions themselves. And GEM software doesn't require the latest hardware to run at a reasonable speed.
Another major difference between GEM and Windows is their installation procedures. Both use a prompted installation procedure that asks you questions about your hardware setup, including the mouse, graphics card and hard disk. But if you change, say, the type of mouse you are using, Windows requires you to complete the entire installation procedure all over again. GEM lets you choose at startup of the installation process between modifying an existing hardware setup or creating a new one. The GEM method is far more practical, requiring less time to make a change and much less frustration.
Back in the days of CP/M, before the arrival of the IBM PC, MS-DOS and megabyte programs like dBase IV, things were a lot simpler. Further, programmers knew that CP/M machines had a maximum of only 64K of memory, and therefore wrote their programs with that in mind. The programs had little overhead and were tightly written and optimized. I remember using dBase II on an ATR8000 attached to my Atari 800 and thinking that it was a powerful program.
It's too bad that Digital Research wasn't able to maintain the presence of GEM in the marketplace. GEM got off to an excellent start on MS-DOS machines—a big advertising campaign accompanied the introduction of the product and users were really excited about having such a powerful capability on their PCs. The threatened legal action by Apple Computers caused Digital Research to rewrite the GEM desktop, draining them of time, money and momentum. As a result, Microsoft Windows became the dominant force on PCs that it is today.
Unless you routinely use MS-DOS or another graphics environment like Windows, you don't appreciate how good the GEM desktop really is. In fact, I admit to taking GEM for granted myself, something I will think twice about now.
GFA BASIC update
MichTron has been around almost since the emergence of the Atari ST. The company is clearly the most prolific distributor of programs for our favorite computer. Some of its programs are okay, others are really good and a few are truly exceptional. One such program is GFA BASIC along with a number of other GFA products that MichTron distributes. However, as of this year, MichTron is no longer licensed to sell or service GFA products. Here's the scoop.
GFA BASIC is a German product from GFA Systemtechnik that has been sold in the United States by MichTron. MichTron paid a percentage of the profits as royalties to GFA and could choose which products they wanted to sell. Apparently, GFA was unhappy because MichTron would not sell all of its products in the U.S. and was interested in having its own subsidiaries in the U.S. in order to make more money.
Without describing all of the details about the GFA/MichTron split up, the bottom line is that GFA currently has no U.S. distributor for its products. Further, support for the GFA products will come from GFA itself, in Germany, rather than from MichTron. Upgrades, warranty problems and the like will now be more difficult for the user to get resolved. At least until GFA establishes a new U.S. distributor/publisher. The international phone number for GFA is 011-49-2115-50400.
As for MichTron, they are already starting to sell HiSoft BASIC and eventually the entire HiSoft software line. For more information on HiSoft BASIC, MichTron can be contacted at MichTron, 576 S. Telegraph, Pontiac, MI 48053; (313) 334-5700.
Here we go again
In the early days of my Atari adventure with both the 8-bit machines and later the ST, I was very vocal about copyprotected software. I realized then and still do, the terrible problem of software theft and the need of software manufacturers to make money on their products. But I always felt that regardless of the specific copy protection techniques used, copy protection interfered with using the programs, especially on a hard disk.
I thought we had seen the last of copy-protected application programs a couple of years ago. The entire industry, not just the world of ST software, abandoned these techniques because they were counter-productive. It seemed that the software thieves were always one step ahead of the manufacturers, being able to crack the protection almost as soon as the new products were released. As a result, copy protection only hurt the legitimate users by being kludgey to use.
Well, just when you thought it was safe to stay in the water, we have a company that is re-introducing copy protection to its software. Migraph, makers of Easy Draw among other products, has recently introduced a new product called Touch-up that uses a hardware form of copy protection—the "Dongle."
A Dongle is a little gadget that plugs into one of the computer ports. When the software is run, the program checks to see if the Dongle is present before it will operate correctly or at all. In the case of Migraph, the Dongle attaches to the printer port, between the computer and the printer. Simply stated, Touch-Up will not run if the Dongle is missing.
There are a couple of problems with "Dongle-mania." First, inserting and removing jacks from the serial and especially parallel ports of a computer should never be done when the machine is on. Doing so risks damaging the internal electronics of the computer and can be costly to repair. Further, the parallel connector on the ST or any computer for that matter has tiny pins that can be bent or broken. Excessive handling of the connectors should be avoided.
Another reason Dongles are a bad idea is that their very use is almost a challenge to some hardware hackers who may try to defeat its use. If someone cracks the protection that the Dongle is intended to provide and the network of software thieves gets hold of the program, the result will be far worse than if no Dongle was used in the first place.
Finally, Dongles or any form of copy protection on productivity software is a nuisance. The inconvenience placed on honest users has never justified their existence. In fact, ill will on the part of the user community is more likely to be the result of protection techniques. Virtually all companies have realized that copyprotection techniques don't work ultimately and that solid documentation, customer support and fair pricing are the keys to making money in the software business. Migraph is taking a step backward with this approach, and I sure hope that it eventually changes its mind.
It seems that these days, everybody is suing everybody else. If it's not Apple threatening to sue Digital Research over the "look and feel" of the GEM desktop, it's Apple threatening to sue Hewlett-Packard over its New Wave graphical interface. If it's not Lotus Development Corp. suing Paperback Software (for its 1-2-3 clone), it's Atari suing the previous management of Federated Stores.
Atari Games (a division of Warner Communications), the arcade Atari, is suing Nintendo under the Sherman Antitrust Act. Atari Games, which produces titles for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) through its Tengen subsidiary is challenging Nintendo's right to include a proprietary chip in each and every licensed Nintendo game cartridge. By requiring this chip in every game for the NES, Nintendo has been able to control how many game cartridges each licensee can sell.
Many companies have been unhappy with the amount of chips Nintendo has supplied them, saying that many more products could be sold if enough chips were available. Nintendo counters by saying that the video-game business crashed and burned in 1984 because there was a glut of inferior products on the market. It intends to not let this situation happen again. At the core of the dispute is the ability of a hardware supplier to control the amount of software available for its system.
Atari's Tengen has announced that it has successfully reverse-engineered the chip and will produce, manufacture and market games that are compatible with the Nintendo game machine. Many companies are watching to see what the outcome of the suit will be. If successful, it could have far-reaching effects on the third-party software market.
Some random thoughts on CES
I've just returned from the winter Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas (well, by the time you read this, that'll have been a couple of months ago). This show marked my 13th visit to the hallowed halls of consumerism, and things have really changed over the years.
In my early years of CES attendance, my attention was drawn to computers, software, video games and the like. Over the years, video games faded from the scene and satellite dishes were the rage. Then satellite dishes were all but forgotten in favor of hot new "home computers" like the Coleco Adam and the Atari 1450XLD.
Video games are hot again; in fact, hotter than ever. So much so, that there was a rumor floating around during the show that it would be renamed to the Ninten-do Electronics Show since almost half of one exhibit hall was devoted to Ninten-do games. We called it the "Nintendo Village."
This was the same hall that once housed dozens and dozens of computer hardware and software companies, names familiar to any longtime Atari computer user. Unfortunately, exhibits other than relating to Nintendo, Sega and videogame paraphernalia consisted of burping beer mugs, cackling skulls, motorized mail boxes that would slide out to your car, cheap laser-light show imitations, rechargeable batteries, plastic compact disc protectors and audio furniture. Even the few remaining satellite dishes were forced outside due to space limitations.
Biggest disappointment of all was that Atari didn't bother to show up. Not even just with its game machines. For several years there was so much happening relevant to Atari computer users that I would write two separate articles covering the show—one for 8-bit Ataris and one for the ST. This year, it was a video-game CES.
Of all the companies showing new products, two were really exciting. The first I can't yet talk about due to signing a non-disclosure agreement, but you'll be reading about it in a month or two. The other was U-Force.
Briefly, Broderbund's U-Force is a hands-free videogame controller. It's the first video-game controller that eliminates all physical contact between the player and machine Currently designed only for the Nintendo Entertainment System but soon to be available for Sega and possibly (according to its developers) the Atari, U-Force looks like a large, flat clamshell.
To use it, you move your hands within the three-dimensional range of the right-angle panels, mimicking the actions you would use in real life. Simply describing it does not do it justice; it has to be seen to be appreciated. Mike Tyson's Punch Out, was demonstrated; to throw an on-screen punch, you simply jabbed in mid-air. There is nothing to hold, press or wear out. U-Force translates the player's exact motion, velocity and relative position into on-screen action. This thing is neat!
Broderbund said that the U-Force will work with about 40% of existing Ninten-do games. It doesn't use batteries, there is nothing to adjust, it just works. Will it be a fad? Will it be around long enough to eventually become available for Atari games and computers? We'll have to wait and see.