Bob and Joy
     By Bob and Joy Schwabach

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  January 2002, Week 2 Looking Forward


   January begins the 20th year of writing this computer column. In that much time, even an idiot would learn a thing or two. And some of it is instructive for all of us. Let's move along then. Give a listen.

  New Products

It's always blue skies at the computer trade shows.

   This is an industry that loves trade shows. In the early years they were the largest in the world, and only a few cities could host them.
   The industry was wild. Apple rented all of Disneyland for an evening just to entertain the press. Other companies rented yachts, flew you to Paris, Tokyo, golf spas and health spas. None of it mattered a whit.
   What soon became clear was that the new technocrats were just full of animal spirits. Sales were breaking off the charts and there was no limit to how high it would all go.
   One of the most interesting things about computer trade shows is that few of the products exist. Some of them will exist someday, but many will either never come out or will appear only after long delays.
   Four years went by from the first news about Microsoft Windows until it appeared. Between seeing the first demonstration of a color inkjet printer (at Epson) until the product was available: 10 years. Interactive movies were shown at Comdex in Chicago 17 years ago; we're still waiting for the product to go on sale.
     Why do companies do it? Sometimes it's the spaghetti principle: Throw a bunch of new products against the wall and see what sticks. We're the wall.
     New products are often promoted simply to draw more funding. In Woody Allen's movie "Annie Hall," there's a scene where he's moving through a crowded room at a Hollywood house party, and as he passes two guys chatting together you can hear one of them say: "I have an idea, and if I can get some money, I think I can turn it into a concept." These aren't real products; they're idea products. If they get enough publicity, the company may be able to attract some money from venture capitalists.
     What soon becomes clear is that writing about products at trade shows is merely an exercise in futility; it doesn't serve the readers. The press is often used as a marketing tool.

Looking Backward

   Stories about future products remind me of the Popular Science magazines I used to read as a child. We were all going to have private planes in our back yards; we would commute to work with our own helicopters; some of us would use jet packs strapped to our shoulders.
   It's somewhat reminiscent of Edward Bellamy's 1888 book "Looking Backward: 2000 to 1887," where he confidently predicted that in 100 years we would all work just a few hours a week, and food would be "as free as air." Things didn't quite work out that way, but it was fun to think about.
   The idea of progress was largely a creation of Victorian England. Before the 19th century very few people thought the world was getting better, or that the lot of its inhabitants was on an ever upward path of prosperity. Nonetheless, this has now become a tenet of our lives, and few ever doubt it.
     There is a vicarious thrill in reading about the future possibilities of technology. But every time I give in to it, readers send letters with practical questions, like: "Where can I get this device?" "When will this be out?" "How much does it cost?"
     It's hard to answer those questions, so this column tries to focus on products that really exist. This cuts out a lot of coverage, of course, but you can read magazines for that.
  What about Microsoft, and Other Questions of Moment
     This column also pays little attention to major programs like Microsoft Office, Word or Oracle. You can read about those anywhere, and in much greater length and detail. Why go over ground that the magazines and other columnists cover to the point of exhaustion? The same thing is true of the physical computers themselves -- desktop and laptop.
     Computers have become close to a commodity item. There is little difference in performance between brands -- test laboratories measure it in microseconds. So just about the only things to consider seriously are price and service. Who will answer when you call?
     Customer satisfaction ratings are published frequently, and the results are nearly always the same: Dell, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, with a few others moving in or out depending on the year. What matters more than the machine is what it can do: Software drives the engine; accessories are its eyes and ears and hands.
  Keep It Tight
     I try to keep the product coverage short and to the point. Brevity is more than the soul of wit; it is the framework. I once read a memoir by the physicist Robert Oppenheimer of a lecture he delivered in China. A translator stood nearby, and after Oppenheimer had spoken for several minutes the translator would step forward and say a few words in Chinese. This went on for more than an hour.
     After the lecture Oppenheimer asked the translator why his translation seemed to be so much shorter than the lecture. Oh, replied the translator, I only translate when something useful is being said.
     So I try to translate only when something useful is being said. The results aren't always perfect, but most readers seem pleased. This is a great technology, and there's a lot more to be said -- when the products actually appear.
  An absolutely wonderful New Year to all.


NOTE: Readers can search more than four years of columns at the "On Computers" Web site: and can e-mail Bob Schwabach at or