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Net Terminals, Upgrades and Internet Word Processing
Change for the sake of Change?
by Rick Smith (March 1998)

I like the Internet, after all, Reviews OnLine is a WEB publication, but it seems that there is a movement to have all programs only Web-based. While this makes sense for SOME programs and CERTAIN users, making everyone completely dependent upon the Internet, to do anything and everything - even relatively simple tasks such as word processing or spreadsheets doesn't make sense to me.

Up-to the minute information, interactive entertainment, collaboration with other people and immediate purchasing are fantastic uses of the Internet. The Internet has provided the ability to get new information quickly and to communicate more easily and cheaply, than any other technology. I have sent over 3,000 email messages this year, not many by some people's standards, but I doubt that I would have communicated with this many people or even these specific people, without the resources of the Internet.

But I feel there is now a more sinister side on the way. It will be when the world of software, that we currently "buy" will simply disappear. No longer will you be able to "buy" a program once and be able to use it virtually forever. I feel that the dawn of this fully "rented" software is upon us. I don't mean that business "experiment" in the 1980's when software was "rented", as a guise for pirates to obtain the newest versions more efficiently, but a world where virtually any computational task will cost you money, by the computation. It would cost so much for a page for word processing, so much money a page to calculate a spreadsheet, etc.

How will this invasion occur? Easy. It will come under the guise of "You get to use [not download] the most current version on the Web" or "it's TOO hard to install [that nasty diskette and CD] software". I feel that these "reasons" are simply pretexts to get around the phenomenon that most software has achieved such a high level of usefulness, that there is little reason for people to upgrade. Besides, older software may work faster (due to faster computers) than when you "bought" it.

Sure, you can tell me that the latest version of a word processor has many great new features and has a newly designed interface, but I contend that for most people, the features of Word 6.0c or WordPerfect 6.0 or even my old favorite WordStar has most of the features that people REALLY use day in and day out. After all, most people write letters, not books. Sure, it's nice to have new features, but this seemingly incessant upgrading of word processing and similar programs isn't making all the forward progress that some people have led us to believe. Some older features seem to also disappear in these new versions. I use two different versions and use the one with the best features for the task at hand. The point is that whether you CHOOSE to upgrade or stay with what you have is YOUR decision. If this is controlled by someone else, and a feature you want disappears, you have a problem since there is no older version to go back to. (I feel that if we spent as much time as we do figuring out how to add new features to word processing, features that most people use less than 20% of the time, and spent that same time on improving ways to use the technology to teach children how to study, how to add or even how to read and write, our future would be brighter, but that is another topic.) Besides, is writing a letter becoming any faster?

Since upgrading to a new version is YOUR choice and YOUR decision alone, you can, at any moment, say "Enough!" and decide to stay with the version that you like and NEVER pay again for the use of the software you "bought". Instead of constantly learning new ways to perform the same tasks in the latest version, trying to grasp the new features or getting used to the "new" user interface, I can choose to either learn more about my current version or sit on my plateau of knowledge, quietly confident that my work is getting done.

In fact, it appears that the recent release of Windows 98, complete with its over $300 worth of coupons to entice you to buy, is not selling at the fever pitch of Windows 95. I think that people are finding out that they don't have to constantly upgrade, many are just saying "NO" to these upgrades and finding that they can live at the release level they have. I use a variety of computer systems that are completely functional, but are "frozen in time". Sure, I have Windows 98, but I also have Pen For Windows 1.0, Windows for Workgroups 3.11 and even one laptop with DOS 3.3. Each accomplishes its specific task very well. My information is at my fingertips, with free 24 hours access and I can get my work done, even when the power has failed, the phone lines are down or the server has failed.

Besides the extra cost of this new "rented" software and the corresponding "forced" upgrades, dependency on many other external factors, outside your control also concerns me when working with Internet only software and the corresponding "terminals". Since these "Internet only" based computers don't have the amounts of traditional PC components, the recent memory cost decreases, fast processor technology and huge hard drives at low cost phenomenon are almost completely lost. Now you get to become entirely dependent on someone else's computer system somehwere else. It could be a giant step back from our current "PC generation" to the mainframe days of the seventies, where everyone worked at a connected terminal and only a few people had their own computer.

While many Web-only applications have excellent reasons for existence and many could not exist without Web connectivity, word processing is not one of them. Even for the useful Web applications, all the parts of this network have to be completely functional or you will get absolutely NO work accomplished.

Let's look to see what you need to have working.

First, you need an Internet account. It's minimal, it will probably cost only 10-20 dollars a month. AOL was at $19.95 but it has increased 25%, to the current $24.95. Not much, but for people on fixed incomes, this is a constant drain on their finances. And this account has to be working - your Internet Service Provider (ISP) has make sure that his Internet router and networking equipment working properly, along with functional modems. A new "wrinkle", in the Northern Illinois area, is that your ISP both needs to be "powered up" and not in a "rolling blackout". This is a term used in our area to denote the period when the electric company decides to turns off your electricity, with minimal notice.

Then your ISP needs to have at least one modem free when you call in -- their phone lines and modems can't be busy. YOUR telephone line also has to be working. This sounds simple enough, but recently, the telephone lines were cut in Arlington Heights, Illinois causing over 4,000 people to be without telephone service for 3 days! You will also need to have another telephone number since you will need to tie up your current number for hours at a time while writing a letter. With the recent surcharges, (did you realize that the FCC charges you $3.50 each month for each line to be paid to them!) along with new "taxes" for second numbers (Ameritech has started to charge a special rate for everyone with a second phone number!) this gets expensive. It is my opinion that these costs will begin to escalate as the telecommunication vendors begin to "charge" for the Internet.

And you need a modem. That part isn't too bad. Costs for modems have dropped. But you will need a high speed modem and it has to be working. And work wherever you want to work - in a train, in a car or in an airplane. You also need to get the appropriate cable for your hotel/motel room and be able to get past their switchboard which may not have been made this decade or have the same connector you have. And some hotels have a surcharge for any use of the phone.

Of course you still need the computer or net terminal.

Oh, the content provider has to provide you the program ready for you at the URL you are looking for, their server needs to be working and the rest of the world can't be wanting to do the same thing, at the same time, or you will have to waiting a long time.

Now, Larry Ellison of Oracle says that Net Terminals will fix these problems, but I fail to see how you won't still need an Internet account that is working, a working phone line, a working modem and functional content provider. OK, they say that they will build a modem into the net terminal for easier connections. (And I think this integration helps increase the speed of obsolescence, so you will have to buy another net terminal later on.)

So let me get this straight, all we need is this perfect little terminal to access all information on the Internet, we have to buy it only once and never have to upgrade it because it needs no "software"? I doubt that. Somehow, I see them creating new models with "more features" and still calling them net terminals. It seems like we would be getting rid of the computer and be trading it in for an electronic device with a monitor, keyboard, mouse, processor, memory and modem. And we will be getting rid of the one part, the hard disk drive, that has a 3 to 5 year warranty and a MTBF (mean time before failure) of over 100,000 hours - over 11 years! This doesn't seem logical.

As I said before, I love the Internet, after all, you would not be reading this if it didn't exist, but the requirement for other, external factors still need to be perfect, as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. But to use all this power only to do word processing online seems such a waste. That's why I like to have my information at my fingertips (on my laptop, PDA or pen computer.) And best of all, I don't have to buy another program or even upgrade if I don't want to!

[Update - August 1998: The NT (Net terminal) zealots appear to have eased back a bit. They now say it's OK to have a local hard drive and even local applications. Their Net Terminal is starting to sound more and more like a PC everyday. I think that's great, because do we really want to go back to "those thrilling days of yesteryear", when we had terminals connected to mainframes?]

Copyright 1998 Rick Smith All rights reserved.

   
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