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September 2001, Week 3 -- When All Else Fails

   The destruction of the World Trade Center, an event I still have not adjusted to, demonstrated once again the efficacy of the Internet as an emergency communication network, which is what it was designed for. While phone service in and out of New York was shut down, those using the Internet were still able to communicate with others outside the city and anywhere in the world.

   The framework that became the Internet we know today was created by ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense in the 1960s. Its purpose was to form a network that had no center, and so would be extremely difficult if not impossible to shut down through an act of war or natural disaster. And so it has proved. In the chaotic days when Boris Yeltsin led opposition against a military takeover of the Soviet government and when China shut down external communications during its Tiananmen Square protests, many people remained in touch with events through the Internet.

 

   Should you ever have the need for this system in an emergency there are two approaches. The first and main one is the direct use of the Internet itself in the normal way, by logging onto known news services and Internet Service Providers such as America Online. The other is what is known as IRC -- Internet Relay Chat, which is a kind of back door to the Internet. This is most useful when regular Internet channels become overloaded. "Undernet" www.undernet.org  is the largest of several chat relay networks that lets users type messages and receive responses in real time. Others can be found at www.irc.org. There are 45 Undernet servers in 35 countries plus 17 in the U.S. and Canada.

 

Back to high-tech news ...

 

 BizCard Reader

   The new "BizCard Reader" for Windows is not much larger than a business card itself and weighs less than four ounces. It can scan and separate business card fields and automatically enter the information into Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express, Symantec's ACT!, Lotus Organizer and most other so-called "PIMs" (Personal Information Managers).

   The tiny reader is from NewSoft www.newsoftinc.com and works with desktop, laptop and handheld computers. The list price is $149, half the list price for CardScan, a business card reader we reviewed three months ago. That one scanned in color, however, while BizCard Reader is restricted to gray scale. Should a business card have a color background, the BizCard Reader ignores that and just reads the text. Scanning speed is about four seconds per card.

 

Phone info for NewSoft: 510-445-8600.

 

Cordless and clueless

 

 itouch keyboard

 

   Logitech www.logitech.com  has four new cordless keyboard and mouse sets for Windows, at list prices ranging from $40 to $100. They work by radio frequency, not infrared, so it's not necessary to maintain a "line of sight" between the pieces and the receiver. The keyboards have some other useful features, like a scroll wheel to let you scroll through a document and dedicated keys for Internet travel.

   I see no point to a cordless keyboard. A cordless mouse is useful, because the mouse is moved almost constantly and a cord can sometimes become tangled, but a keyboard is hardly ever moved. If you are the type who likes to lean back in a chair and use the keyboard in your lap, I don't see where a cord would be a hindrance.

   I can get quite heated about keyboards, and I guess I will. I just spent $800 for repairs to a keyboard originally made for the Wall Street Journal. It cost $1,000 when it was new 20 years ago; I haven't seen a decent new keyboard since then. That keyboard is no longer made. Modern keyboards packaged with new computers are as close to disposable junk as anything you can buy. Just to give you an idea of how cheaply made they are, the wholesale price for low-cost keyboards sold in bulk by large manufacturers is $5 apiece. Just what kind of quality can you get for $5?

 

   What has happened is that as prices have dropped to less than $1,000 and in some cases less than $600 for good computers, hardly anyone is willing to pay extra for a high quality keyboard. The same situation is occurring for peripherals. Multi-function office machines (color printer, scanner and copier all in one) have dropped to less than $200. Individual scanners are about to drop to less than $100 from nearly all makers. An executive in the business told me they cost about $20 to make, so there's room to maneuver even at less than $100.

 

   What does it all mean? I think it means there is room in the business for a high-end producer, someone willing to make the very best and sell it to those willing to pay for it.

 

Entertainment?

 Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

 

   A new computer game version of the popular television show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" just came out from Buena Vista software and they still haven't got it right. The problem with the first one was that questions (after all, it's a quiz show) were duplicated after playing for only a few minutes. This new "3rd Edition" adds lots of graphics and music that replicate that of the show itself, but duplicate questions began showing up after 20 minutes of play. What's the use of a quiz show game that keeps asking questions whose answers you've already seen?

NOTE: Readers can search more than four years of columns at the "On Computers" web site: www.oncomp.com. You can e-mail Bob Schwabach at bobschwab@oncomp.com or bobschwab@aol.com.

 

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