In software as in life, small is beautiful

by Alan Zisman (c) 1998. First published in Computer Player, June 1998

One of our themes in this column has been how, for too many consumers, newer equals better equals must have. And in an industry where hardware generations are about six months, Internet software is updated every nine months or so, games are updated annually, and productivity suites every two years, trying to stay on top is expensive, too say nothing of virtually impossible, at least for more than a few weeks or so at a time? after that the bug fixes start appearing, along with the new driver versions, and a new, faster CPU.

Clearly, Lewis Carroll was thinking of the hundred-year-in-the-future computer industry when his Red Queen told Alice that she would have to run as fast as she could, just to stay in one spot?to actually get anywhere, she?d have to run twice as fast.

(And of course, publications like this one remain free to the readers due to the retailers hoping to keep us on the upgrade treadmill. And far be it from me to bite the hand that pays the printer?s bills).

This month, let?s take a look at software. Is newer and bigger always better?

If you?re getting a little tired of the Microsoft vs Netscape browser-battle, with the resulting versions of Internet Explorer and Communicator/Navigator getting more and more bloated with each release, point your browser over to Norway, to

Opera is a web browser with a difference. While it?s packed with lots of modern features, it?s a humble 1 meg (more or less) download. And it includes features you won?t find in the Big Two (getting bigger all the time). Like multiple browser windows, allowing you to read one site while another is downloading. Lots of user configuration options.

Because it?s about 1/10th the size of the better-known brands, it loads faster, and runs faster. And that makes browsing more fun. Currently, there are versions for 32-bit and 16-bit Windows, with the company?s Project Magic aiming to create versions for OS/2, Linux, Mac, Amiga, and more.

Lacking the resources of Microsoft or Netscape, Opera isn?t free? the downloadable version works for 30-days, then shuts down. If you like it, pay $35 (US?or $18 for students, educational institutions, or anyone who can?t afford the full price) and register it.

This is not the only example of ?Small is Beautiful? software.

If you use presentation software, for creating and showing computer-based ?slideshows? to illustrate a talk, you probably rely on market-leader Microsoft PowerPoint, part of Microsoft Office (Windows or Mac). A good product. Like the rest of the Office Suite, lots of powerful features.

I prefer, however, ASAP Word Power, a modest little product, from Software Publishing Corporation, ( Three humble floppy disks in the box, which between them include both Windows 95 and Win 3.1 versions of the product. It?s a quick and dirty little presentation package, with fewer features than PowerPoint, but easy to learn, and easy to use. The resulting presentations are not bad, either, and you can print out really good-looking handouts. Unfortunately, the company doesn?t seem to be promoting or selling this fine product; instead, they?ve evolved it into something called Active Office ($49 US), a Microsoft Office 95/97 add-on.

While we?re on the topic of Microsoft Office (at least sort of), I must confess that I do use Microsoft Office. I resisted for a long time, really I did. In my pre-Windows days, I used a shareware word processor, Galaxy. And the original Borland Quattro for spreadsheets. When I moved to Windows, for a long time, I used Lotus (originally Samna) Ami and Ami-Pro as my work processor, along with Microsoft Excel.

But when I moved to Windows 95, I got tired of waiting for Lotus to come out with a 32-bit version, and moved to Office 95. I?ve grown to rely on Word?s real-time spell-checking (yes, it?s available in Lotus Word Pro and Corel Word Perfect as well). But Office 95 is good enough for me?so far, I haven?t found anything compelling me to upgrade to Office 97. The animated paper-clip help system is cute for a while, but not enough to make me need to upgrade.

Passing on upgrades is, perhaps, the simplest way to keep things small and manageable.

While I was a 16-bit Lotus user, I started using Lotus Organizer to keep my phone numbers, calendar, to-do lists, and more. Version 1.1 shipped on a single floppy, and still does all I need. Later versions added features I don?t need, like the ability to set up mutually-convenient meetings across a network or hook into Lotus Notes. Later versions also resulted in a program ten or more times as large as the svelte version I still use.

The moral: let?s change the slogan from ?Bigger is Better? to ?Small is Beautiful?.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan