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1999 Interesting Things column

December 13, 1999
by Zac Belado

It's getting towards the end the year, the last slouch towards the end of the millenium and the possible end of the universe and life as we know it if religious television personality Jack Van Impe is correct. And as is typical in the computer industry, most magazines and Web sites are full of vaguely sycophantic lists of awards for hardware and software products. The fact that most of these lists come out just before Christmas should be seen by the cynical reader as nothing but a massive coincidence and not evidence of the magazine industry toadying to their advertisers. But why should crass computer publications have all the fun? Why can't semi-unknown computer pundits compile their own lists of products and technologies for the purpose of making readers think they know what they are talking about?

To that end, I would like to present my own list, not only of cool and useful technological toys but also other interesting things that have made this year better.


As usual, this year has seen a veritable landslide of hardware product. Unfortunately, most of them are so similar as to make one think that the same company produced them. Most of the computer industry seems to fall into an industrial design plan that can be best categorized as SSDD or "same shit, different day ". So it comes as no surprise that the best hardware product in 1999 was made by Apple, what might surprise you is that the product that I've picked is not the iMac or the iBook but rather Apple's G3 laptop. The initial batch of machines was nothing short of spectacular and the new models, including the 400 MHz laptop, are, without hyperbole, probably the best computers you can buy. Unless, of course, you use Windows. In that case, you'll want to look at the IBM ThinkPad 770x. The ThinkPad uses the same 14.1" TFT screen that Apple uses and adds what has to be the best keyboard ever put onto a laptop. Both machines are not only excellent for use on the road but they also make excellent desktop replacement machines. In fact, I have replaced both my Mac and PC desktop machines with these two laptops and have not looked back.

Well that's not 100% true. Both machines have rather sad 3D hardware support and its consequently hard to run Quake 3 Arena or Unreal Tournament on them. This is bad, in that I can't really play either of those games (although UT looks sweet in software mode on the ThinkPad) but good in that I won't be killing two hours a day playing CTF online.

Smart readers will have noted that the two games that get mentioned here are both games that have changed from local-based single player games with multiplayer extensions to, effectively, multiplayer only games that require a net connection. People talk about how porn sites have lead the acceptance of net technologies but that's mostly an excuse for magazine writers to feel comfortable browsing through those sites on office time. The real technological leaders are gamers and game websites. These are the people that drove the use and acceptance of Flash as a technology and are showing the way for net-enabled application development.

Playing Quake 3 is a much easier task when you have fast net access and perhaps the fastest, and easiest, broadband technology is ADSL. As I've noted before, broadband access is a transformative experience. It changes the way you approach the net and how you access and share data. We are currently only beginning to make small experimental steps into this realm but the effects are starting to be seen. The next year should prove to be interesting as broadband access continues to grow to the critical mass that businesses need to begin to include it in their business plans.


Software is a much harder category to judge. Not only are software products more diverse than hardware offerings, but software is also more subjective. One person might find a software package easy to use and relatively bug free while another might tear their hair out in frustration while trying to use the product.

Perhaps the most troublesome product this year is Microsoft's Internet Explorer 5. In some respects the application is a total joy. It has full XML and XSL capabilities, it's fast, and so far it is relatively bug free. But the application is so riddled with security problems that one is loath to actually browse Web sites with it. Thus IE 5 is a great browser for viewing local XML content but a potential land mine for looking at any sites on the Internet.

Another cool but flawed piece of software is the ViaVoice software that I'm currently using to write this article. While software seems to work 90 percent of the time it occasionally produces text that only a Newton could understand. Part of this has to do with the fact that the software hasn't yet learnt my idiosyncratic Canadian pronunciation. It seems to have some difficulty with the word "about". But I'm willing to put up with this primarily because the software seems to be able to spell words like idiosyncratic and sycophantic much better than I can or ever will be able to.

Despite a large number of new products, there weren't really any that did anything other than expand on previous products. So here is quick list of "keen" software that made our lives better but not by much; DreamWeaver 2, Cold Fusion 4, Go Live 4, InDesign and Director 7.

And you can't really talk about software without being forced to discuss Linux. Linux is fast becoming the OS equivalent of a selection in the Oprah Winfrey bookclub. Well-intentioned people are telling you to try it but you never seem to find the time. Part of this has to do with the veritable "bataan death march" of reading that is required before your install Linux. Despite some serious attempts to simplify the process, installing Linux is not a simple matter. And once you have it installed it's still a very intensive process to configure the OS. Despite the very useful and interesting technologies that run on Linux, it will remain an OS used by a minority of computer users. Which is an absolute shame because it has so much to offerÉ unfortunately severe eyestrain caused by squinting through 200 line config files is the primary experience that most users have. It will probably be 2001 before Linux becomes as easy to install as NT 4.

If you want to install and use Linux it might be simper to invest in a system from the Cobalt Qube or Rebel NetWinder. Both systems are "plug and play" Linux server solutions that can be plugged into a network, accessed and configured via a web interface and left to run.

The coolest technology "since sliced bread" has to be XML. XML does for data what HTML did for content. Namely, provide quicker and more efficient ways for you to find pornography on the net. Actually XML has already transformed the way that many businesses and Web sites transfer and share data. As XML and its associated technologies continue to expand it will most likely become the standard way of transferring data and displaying content on the Web. But what ultimately makes XML an exciting technology is that the same data transfer mechanisms can be used in local applications or even in net-connected client side applications. XML makes any database of content or data "write once display anywhere". Next year should see the finalization of the XHTML specs and a move by browser makers and designers away from HTML to XHTML. It will be an interesting transition but it promises to open new areas of innovation and software design that will change the way we use the web.

Things not attached to a computer

But life would be boring if all we did was work and talk about technology. Some of the more interesting non-technology related items of the past year

Best music: Talvin Singh's "Ok" and Ani Difranco's "To The Teeth". Both are exceptional pieces of music that are at once familiar and yet discordant enough to draw you in to the artist's work. "Sutrix" from Talvin Singh's CD and "Cloud Blood" from "To The Teeth" are definitive tracks for both CDs.

Best fiction: "A Conspiracy of Tall Men" by Noah Hawley and "The Pathology of Lies" by Jonathon Keats. Page turners both.

Best non-fiction: "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media" by Norman Solomon. A collection of his work from The Nation (and other magazines) that looks at the inefficiencies of the modern media and the manner in which it masks its own motivations and prejudices.

Best reason to get away form the computer: squirrels. My new apartment is surrounded by them and I find the darned things infinitely amusing. Especially the cheeky way they wander into the apartment looking for peanuts.

Best reason to go back to the computer: Alpha Centauri and the Alien Crossfire expansion from Sid Meier's Firaxis Games. An engrossing game that has an exceptional amount of depth (even without the Alien Crossfire expansion) and replayability.

Zac Belado is a programmer, web developer and rehabilitated ex-designer based in Vancouver, British Columbia. He currently works as an Application Developer for a Vancouver software company. His primary focus is web applications built using ColdFusion. He has been involved in multimedia and web-based development, producing work for clients such as Levi Straus, Motorola and Adobe Systems. As well, he has written for the Macromedia Users Journal and been a featured speaker at the Macromedia Users Convention.

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