ISSUE 442: For The Record- April 14 1997


New Deal offers updated GeoWorks program
that transforms old PCs into usable machines

Let's point the old time machine back to 1990 -- about four generations in computer time, or about four centuries in Internet years.

That was the year Microsoft released Windows 3.0 -- a.k.a. the Macintosh for the rest of us -- the first popular graphical user interface for the PC platform, at least if you had a then high-end 386 with an expensive four megs of RAM.

At the same time, though, a small Berkeley company, GeoWorks, produced an alternative to Windows. GeoWorks Ensemble offered a graphical user interface and suite of software applications that ran without the overhead of Windows, giving the user an attractive and usable interface that worked well even on the garden-variety 286s of the era. Despite superior performance and a larger potential user base than Windows, however, GeoWorks went nowhere. Microsoft's marketing muscle and -- more importantly -- the lack of any GeoWorks applications, were to blame.

Back in 1998, hundreds of millions (and several generations) of computers later... There are still some 30 million 286s and 386s in use, unable to run the latest software, but with the potential to remain productive tools. Yet more and more, they're being consigned to the scrap heap, as businesses find they can't even give them away.

Enter New Deal, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Montreal (www.newdealinc.
). They've licensed GeoWorks Ensemble, brought it up to date and made it Internet capable. The resulting New Deal Office is an inexpensive product that offers the ability to bring those older, but still working computers out of the closet and back onto the desktops.

New Deal provides icons, menus, mouse support, along with long file names, and preemptive multitasking and multithreading, just like Windows 95 or NT, or the not-yet-released Macintosh Rhapsody operating system. But the program works on a 10-year-old 286 or 386, with 640kb of RAM and a 20- or 40-meg hard drive.

Of course, you won't be able to run Microsoft Office on it, or any Windows or Macintosh software for that matter. To get the benefits of New Deal, you need to run New Deal software and, as was the case for its predecessor GeoWorks, there isn't much of that -- essentially what comes packaged with the operating system. Still, what's in the box will meet many people's needs. There's a word processor, with most required features and a lot of page layout capability, a spreadsheet, a database and a graphics program with lots of Corel Draw-like bells and whistles.

All members of the suite are drag-and-drop-enabled. You can drag the graphic or the spreadsheet chart into the word processor window, and add it to your report.

I installed the package on a decade-old IBM PS/2 Model 55: a 16-MHz 386SX with 2 megs of RAM. It fit tidily onto the 40-meg hard drive and gave impressive performance, even with multiple programs open at once. In fact, in this era of 300-MHz processors, with 32 megs and more RAM, and operating systems that require 200 megs or more of drive space, it's amazing to see the performance that the right software could coax out of this old hardware.

The New Deal package is a bit of a moving target. In the copy I got, for example, the Web browser and Internet connection software weren't included, but the company claims the programs are in the versions shipping now. Similarly, Internet-standard Pop3 e-mail isn't quite here yet.

The bundled applications can read files from today's standard programs such as MS Office, but only if saved in older file formats.

The company has even got a Visual Basic-like development application in the works (with beta copies available for download).

The company is targeting the home/small office market, along with schools and non-profits. Potentially, businesses could use it to bring their older machines back out of the closet.

Travellers, who are justifiably wary of toting a $5,000 notebook around the world, may want to consider taking an older, New Deal- equipped model (especially after the company gets the e-mail software out the door).

In a just universe, there'll be a market for this kind of software, which has the potential to breathe new life into old hardware.

The cost? $99.

But don't take my word for it. You can download the shareware edition, featuring the interface, file manager and word processor for free (registration is about $15).

Of course, that 286 or 386 probably doesn't have Internet access, does it? Instead, contact Western Canada regional sales manager Geoff Clay at 618-1739.*

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