What You Really Need

What's new, what's hot, what's necessary.

While technical innovation continues at breakneck speed, wise computer users would do well to pause before hurrying to buy the latest computer, software or gadget that hits the market. Some of the new gear is essential, but many new products add little or nothing to CPAs' productivity. The goal of this article is twofold: to review what's new and hot in technology and to guide you on whether to invest in it.

Meanwhile, these recent developments are having significant influence on whether and what you should buy:

  • Prices of computers and some peripheral equipment plummeted last year, making it hard to justify not upgrading from those poky old models just because they haven't been fully depreciated.
  • Computer operating speeds zoomed into the fast lane—running so speedily that even large, resource-demanding software applications such as office suites and networks now work at what some call New York time. As a result, it makes good business sense to invest in a computer that runs at speeds at or above 250 megahertz (MHz).
  • The Internet finally has become Big Business—so big, in fact, that it's wagging the software dog. To wit: Microsoft's latest products are specifically designed to be extremely Net friendly.

Microsoft, whose operating systems are on about 90% of all personal computers in the world, soon will introduce a new operating system. That product will mark a dramatic shift in Microsoft's strategy: It will not only draw the final curtain on Windows 98, the current operating system, but it also will be the end of the line for all the "old" Windows software. While Microsoft will continue to support the old Windows, its next focus will be on a new breed of operating system based on the industrial-strength and network version of Windows NT (which stands for new technology). The new system will be called Windows 2000. The NT name will be retired.

The current version of NT—4.0—is only a few years old. In that short time, it has noticeably eaten into the market share of Novell's network software—NetWare, which for the moment dominates the network software field. Windows 2000 may spell the end of that leadership.

For the average user, a move to Windows 2000 is both good and bad. Although the new system is more stable than its predecessors, it will present a technical headache. To understand the nature of the headache, a bit of background is necessary. All the earlier versions of Windows were engineered to do double-duty—that is, run both Windows and DOS applications. The need to juggle both is one reason those earlier Windows versions haven't been as stable as many users had wished.

RAM's the Answer

Whether you upgrade or not, think about adding more memory to your computer. In a switch from just two years ago, the ever-critical RAM chips are now both abundant and inexpensive. If you do nothing else about upgrading your computer, add more RAM. It will make your applications run much faster. Today's standalones work especially well with 64 megabytes (Mb) of RAM, but if you convert to Windows 2000, you may want 128 Mb. Servers should have at least 128 Mb of RAM—more if needed. If your computer cannot accommodate that much RAM, either because the hardware lacks the open slots or your operating system cannot handle it, then you should upgrade the entire system.

NT, on the other hand, never had such a burden. It was engineered specifically to run Windows, making it far more resistant to crashes or freeze-ups. Since Windows 98 will be the last of Microsoft's hybrid operating systems, the death of DOS may finally, after many premature announcements, be imminent.

What will that mean to the average user? If an office runs only Windows applications, upgrading to Windows 2000 is prudent. However, if you plan to run mission-critical applications on it, you may want to delay installing it at least until after the first or second service release—what Microsoft euphemistically calls its bug fixes. But don't procrastinate: Windows 2000 is a superior product for both standalone computers and networks.

If you're a diehard DOS application user or you can't find a Windows program that effectively replaces your favorite DOS application, be cautious about switching. Windows 2000 will not run all DOS programs. Before making a commitment, test your favorite DOS software on it first or check with Microsoft.

The new Windows operating system will come in three versions: the Professional (for the individual workstation), the Server and the Advanced Server (for networks).

While it's futile to try to read technology tea leaves, the Windows 2000 path appears to be the way to go for the next few years. In fact, network administrators surely will be delighted with Windows 2000 because the setup is easy and allows both great flexibility and automation in administering a network.

However, don't rule out Novell: It's working hard to match the Microsoft product feature for feature, and current NetWare users would be wise to stay with their tried-and-true network operating system.

By the time you read this, Microsoft will have introduced its Office 2000 suite, a highly Internet-compatible arsenal of office tools. There will be several versions of the product. The full version contains Word, Excel, Outlook, Access, PowerPoint, Publisher, FrontPage and PhotoDraw. Considering that a series of Office 2000 beta versions has been under test by tens of thousands of users, it may be one of the most pretested products in computer history and have the promise of few bugs.

Should you upgrade to Office 2000?

The product is very good and adds many effective productivity features, including speed. However, unless you plan heavy Internet or intranet interaction (especially preparing material for the Web and sharing files on it) and wish to work collaboratively with networked colleagues, there is no overwhelming reason to upgrade. The current suite, Office 97, is adequate and all but the Access database is fully backward and forward compatible. The new Access can read data created on the old version, but unless the data are converted to the new version, changes cannot be made.

Groupware. Good news for Novell's GroupWise users: Novell, recognizing Microsoft's overwhelming market influence and fearful of losing ground to its competitor, soon will introduce applications that allow Microsoft's Outlook and Office 2000 users to make use of GroupWise—an application that helps people work collaboratively. If your office is committed to a Novell network, it will not have to switch to Microsoft to ensure that colleagues can perform their computer work as a team.

For the "Anything But Windows" Crowd

Many users continue to search for a Windows alternative. Now they have two reasons to cheer—Unix and Linux.

Unix, as you know, has been around for years, used mainly by large organizations. While it's stable and can handle huge networks, it lacks the user-friendliness of Windows and can't run as many applications as Windows can. However, that may soon change. Unix developers a few years ago decided to "open-source" the software (make the software's underlying code public so programmers could customize it). That move, in part, persuaded some software vendors to commit to developing new, friendlier and faster versions of Unix, which should soon be coming onstream.

Even more significant is the recent decision by three major developers—IBM, Santa Cruz Operations and Sequent Computer Systems—to collaborate on taking Unix a major step into the future. They are working on a 64-bit version of the software, which will make it screamingly fast.

What that development means to users: Until recently, software was written in 16-bit packets. No matter how fast the computer hardware operated, ultimate computation speed was limited to the size of each individual program packet—16 bits of information that traveled through the processor. Following the introduction of Pentium processors, which can handle 32-bit programs, many software developers upgraded their applications to run 32-bit packets—significantly upping their speed. The move to 64 bits would again double the speed potential.

Microsoft, on the other hand, when asked if it, too, would be upgrading to 64 bits, responded that, while developers were working on an upgrade, it was in no rush because the market was not yet ready.

Although the use of Unix has grown significantly, it's still relatively insignificant in the market, and its user interface is still inscrutable to all but Unix specialists.

Linux (it rhymes with "cynics"), an operating system written in 1991 by a young Finnish college student—Linus Torvalds—started as a software curiosity that was immediately embraced by hackers and software programmers for its elegant simplicity and stability. When Torvalds introduced the software, he made it clear he did not plan to patent it or charge for it. Instead, he invited programmers to improve on the initial design. And they did—hundreds of programmers volunteered upgrades, resulting in a product that is far better than the original.

Today, as many as 10 million computers run on Linux and that number continues to grow. While many turn to Linux because they are staunch "anything but Windows" users, the majority use it because it's cheap, it's stable and, most important, the code is open (public). That's particularly significant because anyone with programming skills can add personalized features to it. For many, that's a very useful asset, something not offered by Windows. Clearly, Linux is not just for the hacker crowd: The list of current users includes Boeing, Compaq and Cisco Systems.

The Linux market is still relatively small; that soon may change. Major vendors—Corel (publisher of WordPerfect), IBM, Oracle and Informix—are developing special Linux versions. For those who can't wait, a Linux Office Suite (word processor, spreadsheet and database) has just been introduced by S.u.S.E., Inc. (www.suse.com).

Meanwhile, a marketing duel is developing between Microsoft and Oracle over their newly introduced databases, Microsoft's SQL Server 7.0 and Oracle's 8i. The battle line being drawn represents far more than just competition between two database products. It raises a fundamental question about the future of the PC, the product that is the wellspring of Microsoft's past and future success.

Each database is structured on radically different approaches. Oracle's 8i is designed to work on the Internet, a sort of jack-of-all-trades application that can integrate with 150 different types of databases. Microsoft's SQL Server 7.0, on the other hand, eschews such diverse support in favor of optimized performance and stability and use on a network.

Oracle's designers figure that a growing number of users would be best served if they accessed a central, remote data warehouse via the Internet. Microsoft, on the other hand, believes that approach raises all sorts of security and performance concerns and is sticking with the traditional client-server approach, where data are stored on a network.

It's a fundamental difference in philosophy. Oracle believes that the Internet,or however the Internet eventually evolves, is becoming the venue for warehouses of all kinds of business, government and personal data and we are entering a kind of post-PC era in which a world of intelligent appliances (from computers to telephones and entertainment centers) will feed from those warehouses. If Oracle's forecast is true, millions of PCs, each loaded with Microsoft's operating system, may eventually go the way of the buggy whip. Microsoft, of course, recognizes the growing importance of, and possible threat posed by, the Internet, which is why it's seeking ways to have its products work tightly with the Net as a way to stop, or at least slow, the threat of obsolescence.

The Best of Both Worlds

Those who want to engage more than one operating system on their computers should consider a program called System Commander Deluxe (www.systemcommander.com).

The program can handle any operating system—and any number of them. You can load Windows 98, NT 4.0, Windows 2000, DOS, Unix and then, with the click of a button, switch from one to the other. If for some reason an application begins to act up, you can switch to another operating system that may handle that application better.

A built-in wizard takes you through the steps to prepare your hard disk for the installation—so you don't have to be a technical maven to get started.

Only time will tell which approach is correct. It may turn out that each will succeed, creating a market for both niches. In the meantime, maybe an inventor working in a garage will introduce yet a third approach.

Viruses are becoming more troublesome, with some even wiping out whole network systems. Years ago viruses were merely minor irritations, designed primarily to get a chuckle out of the victim. But in recent years many virus authors are cyber-terrorists. Although many viruses are still designed as jokes, others are quite dangerous. Some of the latest are called macro viruses: They attack Word and Excel files and even propagate via the Internet.

While no perfect protection exists, you can decrease the risk. Antivirus software is the first line of defense, but it must be updated frequently for it to be effective, and this is where most users err. Updating once every few months isn't enough, because new viruses are introduced daily. One software brand, Panda (www.pandasoftware.com), offers updates via the Internet daily and guarantees that its technical staff is available seven days a week, 24 hours a day. (For more on antivirus software, see " Facts and Fables About Computer Viruses," JofA, May98, page 39.)

Another product, InDefense (www.indefense.com), is designed to work without updates. Rather than storing the profiles of thousands of viruses (as all the other antivirus products do), InDefense's developers have created a way to identify any file that has the appearance of a virus. Once spotted, it can disarm the virus. However, InDefense is more difficult to use than the conventional products and therefore tends to be used mostly by people with computer skills—help desk and network experts.

Following are a collection of hardware and software products accountants should consider adding to their technology toolboxes:

Telecommuting. With telecommuting becoming more widespread, take a look at Symantec's new pcTelecommute software (www.symantec.com). It does just about everything a telecommuter needs: It screens incoming phone calls by displaying the caller's phone number on the computer screen; logs all incoming and dial-assisted outgoing calls and faxes; sends faxes from the computer; synchronizes files between home and office; lets you control your office computer from home or vice versa; and permits help-desk support from the office.

Utilities. For years, Norton Utilities (another Symantec product) has been the computer utility of choice. The latest version, for Windows 98, contains a host of useful tools, including a feature that, when prompted, connects to the Internet and updates itself. Another useful feature, especially for those who have no intention of getting under the hood of the computer, is WinDoctor. It analyzes the entire computer setup and, when prompted, will correct all the errors it finds.

The Y2K bug. Standalone computers face the same threat from the year 2000 bug as the big mainframes do. Here are two software programs designed to fix the problem for single users' computers. Check 2000 PC De-luxe (www.gmt-uta.com) checks to see whether your computer is ready for January 1, 2000; it also scans all your files and tracks down any two-digit dates and corrects them. McAfee 2000 Toolbox (800-338-8754) does a similar Y2K check.

Modem. Unless you have a super-high-speed cable connection to the Internet or an integrated services digital network (ISDN) phone line, it's time to upgrade to a 56K modem. If you're currently using a conventional V.34 modem, which runs at a maximum speed of 33.6 kilobytes per second (Kbps), a 56K modem will boost your Internet throughput by nearly 80%. Note that prices of 56K modems vary from about $50 to $400—and there isn't much performance difference. In fact, PC Week rated Diamond Multimedia's $170 Supra Express 56 higher than a $400 product. For more information: www.diamondmem.com.

Caveat. Not all Internet service providers and not all phone lines (especially in hotels) are equipped to transmit at the higher speed. But that's temporary. Because of growing demand, most providers are upgrading their systems to accommodate 56K data speeds.

If you want to connect several networked computers to the Internet, all sharing an ISDN phone line (which has a throughput of 128 Kbps), consider a personal ISDN router. Routers traditionally have been fairly difficult to install, but now there are several new models designed specifically for the non-techie market. The Shiva AccessPort 2.0, for example, is one of the easiest to install. Not only does it have wizards and a QuickTime movie to walk you through the entire installation but also all the cables are color-coded. For more information: www.shiva.com.

Modem cord. If you typically travel with a laptop, you know the cord that connects your computer to the telephone is highly vulnerable: One bad snag can abruptly terminate your Internet link and even snap the cord. However, for a few extra dollars you can buy a cord that is nearly unbreakable and has guards that protect it from snagging on furniture. DataSpeed 100 Internet Cable even comes in colors (yellow, off-white, red, blue and black). The longer cord is especially handy when the only phone outlet in a hotel is next to the bed and the desk is at the other end of the room. For more information: www.monstercable.com.

Printer/scanner. Need a printer while you're traveling? How about a scanner, too? Canon has introduced a portable two-pound product that does both the PJC-50 Color Bubble Jet Printer. To convert it instantly into a scanner, add the optional scanner cartridge. For more information: www.ccsi.canon.com.

Portable computer. Toshiba has introduced a laptop that significantly raises the bar on laptop technology. Its Portg 3010CT is three-quarters of an inch thick and weighs less than three pounds. It's housed in a magnesium-alloy case and has a 10.1-inch active matrix display, a 266 MHz Pentium processor, a 4.3 megabyte (Mb) hard drive, 32 Mb of RAM and a 56K modem. Battery life is nearly three hours. One negative: Because it's so tightly packaged, there's no room for a parallel or serial connector (for a printer and other accessories) unless you add Toshiba's eight-ounce Port Expander Module, a clunky attachment that plugs into the back of the computer and provides those ports. For more information: www.toshiba.com.

Paging—plus. The lilliputian keyboard of BellSouth's RIM In-teractive Pager may be hard to get used to, but it's worth the effort. The pager is a palm-size device that sends messages to a telephone, where they can be retrieved in the form of voice mail, and both sends and receives e-mail. In addition, the sender gets an instant acknowledgment that the message was opened. Two colleagues, facing negotiating adversaries across a table, say, can secretly e-mail each other to set strategy. For more information: www.bellsouth.com.

Backup power. Backing up data is certainly wise, but what happens if there's a power outage or a brownout? If your office is hit by a blackout, you would lose any unsaved files and likely would crash your hard disk—wiping out all your data. The solution: American Power Conversion's Back-UPS 280. In addition to protecting the computer against blackouts, it protects against electrical fluctuations. The device has enough battery power to keep a computer running nine minutes after a blackout—enough time to save your files and shut down the machine. For more information: www.apcc.com.

Conference call. Most phones with built-in conference-call microphones and speakers work well if you're sitting close to the instrument. If the call includes a roomful of colleagues, those at the outer edges are unlikely to be heard. The SoundPoint Pro from Polycom solves that problem with 360-degree room coverage and crystal clear sound. More information: 800-765-9266.

Handheld computer. If you haven't seen one of your business associates whip out 3COM's Palm III to check the calendar, locate an address, do a quick calculation, add an item to an expense report, plug into a phone line to download e-mail or any one of a score of other things, you've probably been on an extended safari. The Palm is almost as ubiquitous as the cell phone. If you're willing to wait a few months and spend about $800, 3COM will soon introduce the Palm VIII, a wireless version of the Palm III—no need to plug in for an e-mail connection. For more information: www.3com.com.

Pocket recorder. The Sony VoiceFile ICD-80 does some things that other pocket recorders can't. Since it stores voice messages (up to 48 minutes' worth) digitally, you can sort individual messages into electronic "folders" for quick access and the audio files can be attached to e-mail messages. More information: 800-222-7669.

Data storage. It's ironic; just as the year 2000 problem—triggered by the once sky-high price of data storage—is about to create worldwide chaos, the cost of storing data has shrunk by orders of magnitude. Not only has the cost of storing a byte been driven down to a tiny fraction of what it was just a few years ago but also suddenly there are dozens of ways to do it. The greatest diversity is occurring in the removable data-storage market. The ubiquitous 1.4 Mb floppy disk is under attack from new super disks that can hold far more data. The only problem is that the various designs don't "talk" to each other, and it may be another year or two before a common standard is arrived at.

In the meantime, what's one to do? The most popular removable storage products—although not necessarily the best—are produced by Iomega, with its 200 Mb Zip Plus and its 2-gigabyte Jaz drive. If you're swapping files with removable cartridges, you're more likely to find someone using a Zip or a Jaz than one of the competing products simply because they are the most popular.

There's a lot of technology out there. Some of it will actually make your work go faster and better. The rest is marketed for those who can't live without the latest and fastest and biggest. More often than not, the latest and fastest and biggest is not the best. Before buying a new, hot product, check it out carefully. Often the first version—whether it's hardware or software—contains flaws or bugs. So it's a good idea to wait for the second or third edition. If a colleague is using it, check to see how he or she likes it and be sure that, if your colleague does like it, the reason for liking it matches your needs—or vice versa.

Visioning Tomorrow's Computer

What will tomorrow's computer look like?

By late this year or early next year, many new computers will be smaller, faster, less expensive and far more powerful.

The footprint (the desk area taken up by the monitor and processor) of some new models will shrink, mostly because flat-panel monitors will begin replacing the bulky displays that now grab a significant amount of desk real estate. In fact, IBM is putting the final touches on a computer design that blurs the line between a desktop and a laptop. Code-named the Chameleon, it will have a flat-panel screen that can do triple duty: conventional viewing, touch-screen applications (resembling the kind of touch screen at bank ATMs) and use with an electronic pen.

Some new machines will be equipped with processors that run at 650 megahertz—more than twice the speed of today's new machines. Typically, they will be loaded with Windows 2000, 128 megabytes of RAM and a 25-gigabyte hard disk. In addition, they will be designed with two universal ports, instead of one, so they can handle more peripherals (printers, scanners, replaceable data storage, video cameras).

The top-of-the-line machines will have CD-RW (CD-read and write) drives that can both read CD data and can be written on, erased and then rewritten on.

Laptops will be able to run at multiple speeds as a way to save battery power. For example, when plugged into an electric outlet, they will run at top speed, but when on battery power, they will drop to a lower, more efficient speed.

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