FACE-LIFT FOR AN OLD FRIEND (column) - Counterpoint, a Windows alternative

Written by David Tebbutt, Computer Buyer 01/92 - scanned

[Why move to Windows programs when we feel so cosy with DOS, wonders David Tebbutt. Perhaps our old favourite just needs to get a little more up front. Enter Counterpoint...]

What is it, do you think, that has made seven million people buy Windows? At a guess, I'd say it must be the apparent ease of use. Existing readers of this column will know that I'm not a great fan of Windows -something to do with the fact I use a Macintosh, I believe. When I use a PC, which is probably 30 per cent of my computing time, I can generally get by with the DOS 5.0 shell or DESQview. Now and again, a software publisher might send me a Windows-only product, in which case I dutifully fire up Windows, run the program, and then return to my favoured environment as quickly as possible.

Windows will, of course, become even more popular. Not least because software publishers can see a huge installed base to write programs for. There's an even bigger installed base for DOS right now, and probably for the Macintosh too.

Still, software publishers aren't daft: they know that the steep growth in Windows sales offers them huge opportunities. And they are the people who will mask Windows' own shortcomings by providing superb ease of use in their own applications. Lotus' Freelance for Windows is an excellent example of this.

The odd thing is that, although there are some undeniably wonderful Windows programs knocking around, there are also many DOS programs which still do an excellent job. These are the programs we've invested a great deal of time in learning and which are as comfortable as old slippers.

And I wouldn't be surprised if most programs which are run from Windows are these old favourites, the ones that got us into computing in the first place. In order to jump from DOS to Windows, you have to beef up your computer. You'll want a VGA screen, at least an 80386-based processor, at least three extra megabytes of memory and a chunky hard disk. And to do what? Many people, I'm sure, fancy the iconic front end to make life simpler but can forego the more sophisticated aspects of Windows. Especially if it involves spending a lot of money.

Allow me to introduce a recent discovery. It's called Counterpoint and with it you can make your computer as easy to use as one running Windows. Maybe easier. Counterpoint costs a few pence less than fifty quid (plus VAT, I'm sorry to say) but it will save you an arm and a leg in machine upgrades. It will run on most PCs, even tiddly ones like the Amstrad 1512 with its mono CGA screen.

Until I discovered Counterpoint, I was quite happy with the DOS 5.0 shell. It allowed me to group programs into categories and, by clicking on the appropriate icon, I could reach down to the next level of categories or programs. The icons were very small though, and were accompanied by a lot of text. I have now achieved similar functionality with Counterpoint, but with a cleaner screen and much larger and more colourful icons. I designed an icon in the shape of a 3-D button and, using that as a template, created several similar buttons but in different colour combinations. I could have used much more interesting icons - Turtles, clowns, golf balls, logos, and so on - from the 100 or so which come with the program. And, frankly these designs are better than mine. But I wanted to create my own.

Each icon runs a program or gives access to another screen on which there can be more icons. Each screen can contain up to 46 icons and you can have a total of up to 250 sub-screens. I password-protected some of the icons, such as the one that gives access to DOS. Others, like the word processor, prompt for a filename when pressed.

My main screen has 11 of my custom icons in two designs which run all my favourite programs. One drops through to a deeper level which opens out on to nine icons, each of which runs a different batch file. It also has a clock and a `company logo' which come with the program. The program is supplied with a Counterpoint logo but I've changed mine to: `Warning - Trespassers will be prosecuted' in white on a green rectangle, with a 3D edge effect. I'd like to have nailed it to a tree, but unfortunately you can't draw trees - or any other kind of background - in Counterpoint.

All this took less than an hour to set up. Attaching programs and batch files to icons is similar to Windows: a file browser allows you to find and select the file of choice. The icon editor is a doddle, especially if you cheat and adapt one of those supplied with Counterpoint. They take seconds to modify with a new colour scheme or some text.

Counterpoint even comes with a screen saver. This blanks the screen after a preset time of inactivity. (It wasn't too hot on the timing - I set it to a minute and it took about three to switch off). Then it leaves the clock creeping around the display to prevent burn-in of the screen's inner coating.

For all the millions of people who haven't bought Windows yet hanker after some of the usability advantages, NewStar's Counterpoint may be the answer. Unless you have a compelling reason to upgrade to Windows, then why bother?