KEEPING UP WITH THE JONES' (column) - RPL, a face-lift for DOS

Written by David Tebbutt, Computer Buyer 04/92 - scanned

[Don't rush out and pack your PC with the latest software releases just because you can. Take a tip from Double 'O' Tebbo and watch out for early versions... they might be deadly.]

In James Bond mythology, the double '0' prefix signifies a licence to kill. People, that is. Experienced software buyers have found that a double `0' suffix on software releases can have a similar effect on their computers. Version .01 is usually the one that fixes the worst bugs - those that have been discovered by the real beta-testers, you and me.

Are you one of those people who has to have a new release of software the minute it appears? Do you feel your existing program has suddenly become obsolete? Maybe you're locked in a DOS world, anxiously watching as the publishers move their allegiance to Windows? Would it console you to know that loads of DOS developers have made a right pig's breakfast of their first Windows versions? Or perhaps you bought some of the very few Windows programs around in the early days and are now wishing you'd waited.

I wouldn't worry about it. You need to have a particular attitude when it comes to buying computer systems. Accept that whatever you buy today you will be able to buy tomorrow, more cheaply and with more functionality. This is an immutable law of computing. When I started, computers with a fraction of the power of your PC were being sold for 15,000 old pounds - and they bundled me in free for six months to write all the programs. (My salary at the time was £900 per year.) If anything, the annual price/performance improvement of both hardware and software is accelerating. This is a fact of computing life. The trick is to accept it and then tell yourself it doesn't really matter.

Why should it matter? You bought your computer system to do a particular job and it still does it, even if an upgrade or a better product has just come out. Had there been no new release, you'd still be happy. So why worry about the changes? Wait a bit longer while everyone else finds the bugs and problems and you can make your decision on release .01. You'll save yourself a lot of heartache this way.

In my darker moments, I wonder whether this buggy release .00, followed by a cured .01, isn't all part of some gigantic plot by the software publishers to compile mailing lists for later direct selling. They rather conveniently say that dealers don't want to handle software upgrades. Everyone who requests an upgrade ends up adding their details to the publisher's database. The truth is, of course, that most new programs will contain bugs, no matter how much effort goes into beta testing. And dealers really aren't interested in flogging upgrades.

My office is littered with abandoned upgrade products and new software releases. Not because they're buggy, but because I've reverted to the original out of preference. The most common problem is that the new releases run more slowly than the originals. This is particularly irritating if you've become used to the snappy response of a so-called `unsophisticated' program. Frankly, I'd rather have a snappy old program than a slower new one, no matter how many extra - and frequently irrelevant - features.

If you're a DOS user, you might be tempted to move to Windows. Look at the cost before you jump. Also, look at whether the applications you run would benefit from an upgrade. You're much more likely to find Windows useful if you're involved in buying computing systems for your company where you need to consider things like ease of learning and ease of use. Once you've learned one Windows application, you've flattened the learning curve for all future applications. Don't move though just because you feel you're falling behind. Have good reason to change your current software, and be aware that the Windows environment will soak up a lot of your processing power, memory and disk resources.

I have an 8086 notebook PC running DESQview, a desktop 386 running Windows and a Macintosh. I have to say that for the sort of work I do - writing, planning, database access - the notebook is just fine. In addition to these tasks, I also use the Macintosh for communications and producing printed graphics. The desktop PC comes a very poor third in the race for my attention. I find that both the Macintosh and Windows user interfaces tempt me into time-wasting activities. I can't tell you the hours I've wasted perfecting the pattern on my desktop on the Macintosh. Or messing around with icons on Windows. At least the austere environment of the laptop prohibits such unproductive activity.

If you or your company have £395 to spare, and you are using DOS applications, you might be interested in taking a sort of half-way step towards Windows. If you have the time, you might like to try a new programming language called Alpha RPL. It allows you to add functions and improve the user interface of your old programs. You could introduce new features, like cut and paste or point and shoot directory listings. You can even knit together several old programs, giving them a consistent look and feel. You don't need to know how your existing programs are written, as your RPL program communicates with them through simulated keyboard activity and by reading the screen. The language is about as easy to use as Basic but much more powerful. You may even find this is the best upgrade you could make - one which preserves your favourite applications while increasing their functionality at the same time.

You can contact Alpha Software Corporation on (0752) 606881.