Author: Joe Wilcox

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Microsoft’s Identity Crisis

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Most big companies must really believe this, because the majority have a corporate logo. Hell, logos have a long legacy, going back to families’ coats of arms. That picture has been a way of identifying an entity—whether a family or business—for a long time. But one major U.S. company doesn’t have a corporate logo, which might explain some rather strange behavior about branding.

I’m talking about Microsoft. This fact might explain some mighty strange behavior up there in Redmond. 

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Deals at the PC Thrift Store

I have never paid full price for a PC, and I’m not talking about bidding for junk on eBay. The best deals, both in price and reliability, come in refurbished, also known as “reconditioned”, PCs. These are models returned for some reason, occasionally for defect but mostly because the buyer changed his or her mind. Once returned, the seller can no longer sell the PC as new.

Most major PC makers sell refurbished computers online, including Dell, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Sony. Vermont-based Small Dog Electronics specializes in Apple refurbs, and PC Connection serves up a wide selection of reconditioned computers. 

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Apple’s Switch Hit

Apple has been itching to get PC users switching.

In fact the company has big plans, starting with bringing PCs into the 30-plus Apple retail stores for byte-to-byte showdowns with Macs. Hell, reliable sources tell me Apple is seriously considering bringing Dell Computer models into the stores. I got to chuckle. On the way to my local Apple Store on June 16, 2002, some guy with Maryland vanity plates spelling out “Dell” pulled in front of me on Connecticut Ave.

My shopping experience at the Apple Store ended with a bang fit for anyone considering dumping a PC for a Mac. I got flagged for an exit poll about store satisfaction that clearly had potential PC switchers in mind. I practically gave the sweet old lady conducting the survey heart failure when I refused the 10 bucks, because it was a check instead of cash. “But the checks are perfectly good”, she defended. Bless her heart for starting to chase me down the corridor outside the store waving the check in her hand. No thanks, dear. 

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Tougher Titanium

Many computer manufacturers are hawking thin-and-light notebooks as the next big thing. Dell Computer, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Sony, and Toshiba are some of the big name companies delivering small portables, some weighing under 3 pounds. But none of these companies has achieved notebook nirvana, a slim-and-light model with a beefy display and enough power to replace a desktop computer. Consumers that want desktop power must buy heavy-set portables, many weighing as much as 8 pounds or more. Those people looking for true portability have had to accept less computing power and smaller displays.

Until now.

Apple’s 800MHz PowerBook G4 meets the demands of the consumer looking for a svelte design that’s light on weight but not light on features. You think one size can’t fit all? That’s because you haven’t seen the Titanium PowerBook in action. 

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Bundling Bungle

Later in June, lawyers rallying for and against Microsoft will present closing arguments in a proceeding that has the potential to radically change how the technology giant sells software. A federal judge would then deliberate about what sanctions she should impose against Microsoft in an attempt to prevent future anticompetitive business and technological practices that violate U.S. antitrust law.

No matter what she does, nothing will likely undo the stupidity that got Microsoft into trouble in the first place. The company insists it has the right to integrate whatever technology it wants into Windows. That practice led to two trials, one still ongoing after—count `em—four years. But the practice Microsoft fiercely defends—almost as a God granted, religious right—is stupid. Microsoft has been busy integrating technologies into Windows that make no sense being there from a business perspective—and they actually make new PCs harder to sell and use. The right Microsoft defends and the way it has been used is just plan dumb—unless of course the objective is to protect the monopoly and not benefit consumers. That latter point is one reason why this case never seems to end. 

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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.