SMURFING THE NET
Depressing news from the world of R&D: computer users have even worse taste than was previously thought. At a meeting of academics in Barcelona earlier this year, Roberto Penzo of the Open Communication Environment for Agent-based Network Services (OCEANS) project presented the results of an extensive study of user preferences. In a survey of professional computer users and consumers of online services in five European countries, the project's researchers set out to find the answer to such crucial questions as what an agent should do and what it should look like. Among the main findings is that "users reject the idea of agents having a very realistic and human-like appearance". What they would prefer, apparently, is a friendly, comic figure. Something like Mole, perhaps? Sadly not. Mr Penzo went on to identify the Smurf as the personification of agent software most likely to appeal to the average user. Unpleasant as this may be, it also strikes Mole as a credible conclusion. History has shown that computer users like their software to be made along the same lines as their politicians and popular entertainers: bland, irritating and not very clever.
Pop into the Swindon branch of electricals "superstore" Tempo and the highly-trained staff will give you the benefit of such expert advice as: don't attempt to connect a PC to a telephone extension because the socket does not contain sufficient gold to prevent interference. Also useful to know is that if you want to be able to receive e-mail you must leave your modem on at all times. This latter tip is particularly handy if, like Tempo, you have just set up a "free" Internet service and want to get the most out of it.
Mole is used to receiving odd requests for assistance and generally tries to oblige, but there are limits. He is at a loss to know how to reply to a Robert Clark who sends him an e-mail that begins: "This is an initial query to find out whether the services you offer via the Net would be better and cheaper for my wife and I than our present traditional arrangements via a provincial Bank of Scotland branch." Mole can only suggest to Mr Clark to send it in. Mole can't promise to invest it particularly wisely but he will give it a good home.
Marriage is one of the most stressful experiences people will ever encounter, along with lying to the board about the status of the Year 2000 compliance programme. To ensure your big day isn't as bad as the day you're going to have when the billing and stock control systems go haywire next January, you might try any one of several software planning tools for the soon-to-be-married, such as Five Star Software's My Wedding Companion, which claims to be able to take care of every eventuality. In Mole's experience of weddings there is no such thing as taking care of every eventuality.
No amount of planning can prevent the best man from becoming drunk and abusive just before he gets up to make his speech or stop your new brother-in-law vomiting over the head bridesmaid's dress at the reception. Adding software to the planning process could only make matters worse. The truly useful software package for weddings hasn't been invented yet. But it would include not just tools for planning weddings but surviving them.
Facilities might include Search - useful for finding lost rings and missing guests; Recovery - a flexible procedure for coping with disasters during ceremonies, speeches, and so on; and Escape - useful when either or both of the parties involved feel they may be making a big mistake.
Microsoft recently released a patch to eradicate supposedly racist features of the Office 97 clip-art search facility. Among the supposedly offensive faux pas committed by the program was to return a picture of a black couple standing in front of playground equipment when the user typed in "monkey bars".
Microsoft has entered into an alliance with Xerox designed to make it easier to connect Xerox copiers to networks running Microsoft operating systems. This strikes Mole as a somewhat ill-considered arrangement on Microsoft's part. Armed with a copier on the network, would-be software pirates will have a field day. Perhaps Bill Gates has worked out that there is more money to be made from encouraging copying than preventing it.
Here's an intelligence test for system administrators. In the following extract from a "readme" file from NT 4 SP5, a) How can you be sure whether or not Microsoft products are Year 2000 compliant? And b) How can you tell if Microsoft is telling the truth?
"SP5 is not required for year 2000 compliance. Microsoft is committed to maintaining SP4, SP5, and future Service Packs as Year 2000 compliant."
The answer to both questions, of course, is that you can't. It's not what your products do, it's what you maintain that they do that counts.
With that in mind, recipients of a recent e-mail from Microsoft should not get too excited at the prospect of the product advertised as Office 20000 (sic). It won't be available for some time and certainly not this month. It's just Microsoft's marketing people getting ahead of themselves again.
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