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iMac, I Like

Anyone who has used PCs for a long time knows the joy has gone out of computing. The “wow” experience from setting up that first computer or exploring the vast informational riches of the Internet are memories. It is like the first time having sex, only sex is still great other times. Getting another new computer just doesn’t reach the same level of excitement or joy.

Until now.

I cracked open the box on a new iMac in mid-March 2002, the midrange model with 700MHz PowerPC processor, 256MB of RAM, 40GB hard drive, and CD-RW/DVD combo drive. (Ironically, later the same day Apple raised prices on all iMacs by 100 bucks; by October the price had dipped another $200. ) For the first time in as long as I can remember, working on a computer is fun. And that’s doing work. Other activities just get better from there. 

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Hey, Apple: Think Smart!

Apple Computer is well known for its “Think Different” slogan, but that doesn’t mean the company thinks smart. If anything, Apple’s recent launch of the revamped iMac demonstrates there’s not much thinking going on at all in Cupertino—that is unless the company is trying to write the textbook on how to totally screw up an extremely important new product launch. If that’s Apple’s idea of thinking different, well, congratulations on a job well done because it’s looking like the new iMac’s launch debacle will be more talked about than the fate of the ill-fated Cube.

Apple’s problem: The iMac product shortage. Financial analysts and some media outlets have taken note of the crisis—and I must state firmly that it is a very serious crisis. This is no typical product shortage brought on by high demand for a hot, new computer. Worse, the timing of the shortage coupled with the importance of the new iMac to Apple are major disasters that could have been avoided. Strongest sales usually take place right after a product’s introduction, a phenomenon that typically cannot be recovered at a later time. In characteristic fashion, Apple is silent about the shortages, instead touting 150,000 early orders. (For the record, an Apple retail store representative on March 3, 2002, said the number had increased to 200,000.) 

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Microsoft’s Lap Dogs

I recently nearly canceled my subscription to all my Ziff-Davis publications—and I still may. My disgust with the outrageous favoritism toward Microsoft had been brewing for months. I read news reports and reviews no one short of Microsoft’s flagship PR firm, Waggener Edstrom, could be spinning. Editors, rather than doing their jobs, were printing the gospel according to marketers holed up in a Redmond, Wash. closet.

The final straw was a July PC Computing article titled, “Office 97 vs. The World”. There contributors Leslie Ayers, Peter Deegan, Lee Hudspeth, T.J. Lee, Woody Leonhard, and Eileen Wharmby explained why Microsoft’s newest rendition of its productivity suite replaced virtually all other business programs. 

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Portable Power

Until recently, I had never owned a name-brand computer. Really. All my systems were custom-built jobs made for easy upgrade ability and packed with solid-performing hardware. My last system, built around Intel’s 430 chip set with 150 MHz Cyrix 6×86 processor, 64 MB of RAM, 4 MB Diamond graphics card, 3.1 GB Western Digital hard drive and NEC 17 inch monitor, is a UNIX Web server in Presque Isle, Maine. I sold it before abandoning the far northern reaches for a more-southern city.

I decided a notebook would better suit my new job and our small apartment. My 2½-year old daughter would get the room that in other times would have been an office. I chose, with great anxiety, a Micron Millennia Transport. The Millennia Transport was a favorite when testing portables for review and Micron offered a 15 percent reporter’s discount. 

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To Make Java, Count Beans

There are a lot of farmers out here in the Maine Outback. The potato is the largest crop—and one of the main sources of revenue for the region. So it is no wonder, in this day of shrinking farms and revenues, these agricultural entrepreneurs must be savvy small business owners. Here, the savvy means maximizing profit and minimizing time doing so: using good business accounting software.

Four bean counters stand out from the pack: DacEasy Accounting & Payroll 95; M.Y.O.B. Accounting with Payroll 7.0 by Best!Ware; Peachtree Complete Accounting 1.0; QuickBooks Pro 4.0 by Intuit. All are full-featured accounting programs designed for small- to medium-sized business. None are specific to any one profession, but each comes with get-you-going templates. As someone who freelances from home, I found the templates made setting up the books a snap. 

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Blame It On Murphy

Recently, I had the unfortunate experience of helping a friend, who is an accountant, troubleshoot a computer problem. Unfortunate, because we couldn’t easily solve his problem. He had a major PC meltdown.

While no computer genius, my friend knows enough to poke around the inside of his PC. He had bought a second printer, this one color, from a local store—and a LPT card so he could run two printers. The process of opening up the PC, inserting the card into the right slot, closing up the box, and restarting the computer should have been easy. He knows enough about a PC to do this confidently. But, as Murphy says: “Anything that can go wrong…” 

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So, You Need Help?

Good help is hard to find—and that is especially true when it comes to mastering computers. Things eventually go wrong. Where should you turn to solve your problem? Corporations staff a Help Desk to field employee questions or troubleshoot breakdowns. If you work at home—or live in some out-of-the-way place like northern Maine—you probably don’t have that luxury. But you can create your own pseudo Help Desk for handling problems.

Most computer problems are user problems—and there are two basic categories: You don’t know how to make something work or the product is actually broken. Most of the time you simply won’t know what you’re doing—and experience is the only way to learn. Most people think that because computer hardware or software do not work the way they expect, something must be broken. Is it the auto dealer’s problem you bought a new car and don’t know how to drive? It’s not a computer company’s problem you can’t tell a computer from a television, either (though they sure make it hard when turning computers into family entertainment centers). When dealing with any problem, first you have to identify whether you have a real crisis or just don’t understand what you are doing. Most problems will be a lack of training. 

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Vaccinate, Don’t Procrastinate

I am an advocate of anti-virus software. Before writing on technology, I was editor for an academic publication in Washington, DC. It was policy professors make submissions on diskette—which invariably were infected with computer bugs. And on a network this was a disaster. Idiot editors would copy files from unchecked disks to their PCs and infect every computer.

You might think you are safe from this kind of contamination, but, believe me, you are not. Of potentially disastrous consequences to small businesses is a new type of macro virus that targets word processing or spreadsheet documents, mainly Microsoft Word and Excel. Since most people use these programs, this is a big problem. 

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Farming the Internet

Local dial-up Internet access came to northern Maine in early February—thanks to the state’s oldest service provider, Agate, and the local farmer’s association, Maine Farmer’s Exchange. It’s strange how none of the banks, insurance companies, or other professional organizations could do this. It took farmers’ foresight to get the job done right.

My dilemma—slogging along America Online at 2400 bps or paying heavy long-distance fees—is fairly typical of rural users: the folks who need the information most pay premium for it. I was lucky enough to get on as a tester for AT&T WorldNet; this meant free access. But the network was slow via the 800 number, and I wore down a spot on my desk drumming my fingers waiting for Web pages to load. 

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Smooth Operator

You would think that in this day of Windows dominance, choosing an operating system would be easy. Not so. There are currently three different Windows in the marketplace—3.11, 95, and NT—as well as IBM’s OS/2 Warp. And choosing the wrong OS can be costly to your business.

Folks here in the Maine Outback are typically cautious. Until a few months ago, DOS/Windows 3.11 was the favorite desktop operating system. Now Windows 95 reigns king. But not with everyone. Many businesses are holding fast to the older Windows or waiting to see if the new Windows NT will outshine 95. 

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Color Your Clients

Any northern Maine school kid in Winter can tell you white is boring. With an average 110 inches of snowfall a season, kids get quickly sick of white. But with a box of food coloring, white can be a great canvas for breaking the monotony.

The point: If you aren’t using color in your office, you are doing a disservice to yourself and your clients. Color ink-jet technology has advanced so far that the the quality of printed pictures can rival true photographs. And there is much you can do with a color printer that will save you money, too. 

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You Have the Power

Power is vital to running a business. Without the pulsing of electricity pushing through your office, all work—except maybe using the telephone—would come to a halt. But the quality and consistency of the electricity you receive is important, too.

When I worked in Washington, DC, I thought little about this. The nation’s capital is well supplied for obvious reasons. But things are different up here in the Maine outback. Outages have been too frequent, and, as I have come to learn, the quality of the electricity is sometimes below par.