Confessions of an archconservative software curmudgeon

AS I reached to disconnect the IBM XT from my computer network, the significance of the moment hit me. Exactly 10 years ago, that machine came to the office. I used it to write my first spreadsheet and load my first software. Over the years, new machines came and pushed it to lesser roles. Now, it is being replaced with today's hottest and fastest IBM-compatible computer: a 90MHz Pentium.

Strange comparisons. When the XT first came out, it cost more than $5,000; its great-great grandson, the Pentium, is selling for less than half of that, even though it is far more powerful. Mine came equipped with a hard drive 25 times the size of the one in my XT and about that much more random-access memory.

I suspect that many of you are hardware liberals like me. We buy the latest and greatest not because we need the speed. We just want to make sure the thing won't be out of date in two years. But deep down, I realize this hardware liberal is a software conservative. (We're not talking ``neo-'' here. This is ``arch-.'')

The discovery came while loading OS/2 on the Pentium. OS/2 is IBM's alternative to Microsoft's operating system with the Windows interface. Both systems use pictures instead of commands, but OS/2 is more advanced than Windows because it uses more of the PC's native power and it allows the microprocessor to do two things at once. (Windows just fakes the juggling act.)

Since the new Windows wouldn't be out for months, and OS/2 runs Windows programs, and I had a copy sitting around, I took the plunge. OS/2 allows users to install it alongside Windows, so that's the setup I tried. In went the installation diskette, then the next diskette, then the CD-ROM disk (most of my OS/2 software came on a CD-ROM). The installation program didn't recognize it.

I rooted through the manuals and, sure enough, some CD-ROM drives need a small piece of software known as a driver. So I logged onto CompuServe, downloaded the driver, and followed the accompanying directions. Still no help. The program kept stopping at an error message saying I needed something called Viocalls, even though I had Viocalls on the disk.

Bob, Tom, and Alicia at IBM technical support couldn't uncover the mystery. Neither could Dell's people. I fiddled. I fidgeted. At the end of the second half day, the revelation came: Why am I doing this? Why install a non-Windows operating system when the Windows I have runs all my software just fine?

The next morning I gave OS/2 one last chance. Up popped the Viocalls error message. So I packed up the manuals, the diskettes, and the CD-ROM, and I haven't looked back since.

It's a truism that software runs the computer industry. If you want to know if some newfangled hardware will succeed, find out how many software developers are writing programs for it. Even the best machines will flop if they don't run lots of software.

But the software isn't really what keeps me from moving to new, untested hardware. It's my own needs. In my early days with the IBM XT, no software program was vital. Today, half a dozen programs are integral to my work. I have invested too much learning to start all over again with a Macintosh.

Every so often, my knee-jerk hardware tendencies get the better of me. This fall, I want to try Apple's new PowerMac. It's faster than the Pentium and will run most Windows programs. But deep within me, a software curmudgeon is waggling a warning finger.

* Send your comments on this column to CompuServe (70541,3654) or Prodigy (BXGN44A).

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