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July 2001, Week 1 -- Still Kicking

    

 

 Alpha Five

   Hard to believe, but "Alpha Five" was once one of the best-selling databases in the world. That was nearly 20 years ago. It's relatively obscure now, though over a million copies have been sold. It's the database I still use myself. The fact is, it's terrific.

 Version 4.5 is $149 for Windows 95 and up, with a version 5 expected this month or next. Amazingly enough, the company, Alpha Software www.alphasoftware.com, still makes a DOS version for $139. How many people out there still use DOS (stands for "disk operating system") on their PCs? How many new users even know what DOS is? (It predates all versions of Windows and is the operating system they rest on.)

 

   Truth is, millions of people still use DOS some of the time. Most of the professionals I've talked to use DOS for some operations. I use it for word processing and some other functions. Why not, it's lightning fast and doesn't lock up. I suppose it's possible to make it crash, though I've never been able to do it.

 

   The database market is overwhelmingly dominated by Microsoft's "Access" and Claris' "FileMaker." FileMaker was developed by Apple and has the advantage of working the same on both Windows and Macintosh computers, and you can share files between those operating systems. Yet neither of these is as easy to customize or use as Alpha Five. MS Access is so difficult there are specialists who make a very good living just knowing how to use it.

 

Alpha is rarely reviewed in computer magazines. We found only one review and that was from three years ago. Nobody loves Alpha Five but the users; take a look at some of the testimonials published on their web site. Alpha phone: 781-229-4500; web: www.alphafive.com.

 

More firewalls to scale

 

 

   Computer security is a hot topic these days and we get questions about it. The most commonly used defense is what's called a "firewall," which blocks access to your computer unless you permit it.

   Firewalls come in all sizes and prices, but the most popular one is "Zone Alarm," which is available in a free version for individuals and nonprofit organizations (others pay $20). The professional version costs $40. You can find both at the web site for Zone Labs: www.zonelabs.com. Zone Alarm gets top marks from users and the free version has been downloaded more than 13 million times.

 

   You can also get Zone Alarm and other popular firewalls from large utility download sites like www.zdnet.com  and www.tucows.com. "Black Ice Defender" and "Sygate Personal Firewall" both get lots of attention and are highly regarded. Sygate is free for home users, $40 for businesses; Black Ice is free for a 30 day trial.

Something for lawyers

   Traditionally, court documents are filed in person at the courthouse. Many U.S. courts have recently started accepting electronic filing, however. You can find standard court forms, fill them out and then send them to the courthouse from www.e-filing.com. Documents sent after the court closes are transmitted the next day when court opens. You need Adobe's "Acrobat Reader" for this but you can download it for free from their web site: www.adobe.com.

  

Internuts

-- www.thinkquest.org  Links to hundreds of sites created by students and teachers. Some examples: Listen to music created by Leonardo DaVinci (he played the flute); describe an object or scene that is them mathematically generated as a picture; history of baseball and trading cards; careers in science; tutorial for the C++ programming language; geography quizzes, etc.

 

-- www.yucky.com  Kids love this stuff, and the rest of us can learn something too. Discover where ear wax and eye gunk come from, learn about belches, burps and other gas emissions (complete with sound effects). Good scientific descriptions lie behind all these.

-- www.howbizworks.com  Sales tips, marketing tips, how to write a business plan, handle customer service, contracts, etc. The technology section of this site has good descriptions of how "Napster" works, how banner ads are created, how firewalls work, how cookies work, and much more on e-commerce.

-- www.backwash.com  A collection of site links categorized by  personality and field of interest. If you think you're a beer and potato chips type, there are site they think fit that. If you like action, they list sites for that; sites for political conservatives, empty nesters, teenage girls, science buffs, generation "X"ers, and so on. There is quite a bit of duplication between categories but also many seldom seen sites.

 

-- http://hurricane.accuweather.com  Forecasts and updates on the latest storms plus histories of past severe storms. Accuweather is the largest commercial weather forecasting service, but there is no charge for the site.

 

Choo-choo, woo-woo

 

 Train Simulator

 

   Could anything be more fun than running toy trains? How about running real trains? On your computer, that is.

   Microsoft's new "Train Simulator" is $55 for Windows. It provides highly detailed trains and track scenery for runs in the U.S., England, Japan and continental Europe. I would guess that more lines will be added later; there are a lot of railroad buffs. Web: www.microsoft.com/games/trainsim.

   NOTE: Readers can search more than four years of columns at the "On Computers" web site: www.oncomp.com. You can also browse the library of products that didn't make it into print. You can e-mail Bob Schwabach at bobschwab@oncomp.com or bobschwab@aol.com.

 

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