My latest book, The Official AT&T WorldNet Web Discovery Guide (Osborne/McGraw-Hill, ISBN 0-07-882336-6, $24.99), should hit the shelves any day now. Despite the corporate-sounding title, it proved to be an interesting project. It felt like a second-generation Internet book for me, because a quarter of the book was devoted to helping readers learn how to search the Internet, and in another quarter of the book, I tried to show how I use the Internet in my everyday (non-computer) life. (Frankly, that portion of the book is heavily autobiographical.) Those two topics – searching and everyday usage – strike me as where the Internet is evolving in useful ways, as opposed to the over-hyped technologies being shoved down our throats.
Another interesting aspect of the project proved purely technical. This is an Internet book, not a Mac or a PC book, and the AT&T WorldNet CD-ROM that comes with the book contains Macintosh and Windows software. But (and this is a big but) AT&T WorldNet wanted the general Web screenshots to have the window dressing of Internet Explorer for Windows 95. Their book, their call, and I sat down to figure out the best solution to this problem.
PC Compatibility Card — My first attempt was an Apple PC Compatibility Card. They’re a bit pricey and I didn’t know anyone using one, so I was pleased when a friend from Apple offered to lend me one that he thought was a final prototype unit. I struggled through the installation sans full documentation and disks (luckily, all the software was downloadable from Apple’s FTP site), and after one major stupid move, made it work. My stupid move involved the PC Setup control panel complaining that it didn’t have enough memory to load properly. Thinking myself more clever than the average bear, I used Conflict Catcher to re-order PC Setup ahead of my other extensions and control panels. Dumb, very dumb. Since PC Setup then loaded before CD-ROM and Ethernet extensions, the PC Compatibility Card couldn’t see the CD-ROM or the network. It took me some days to figure that one out.
Overall, I was impressed with the PC Compatibility Card. Speed seemed good (speed was the main reason I hadn’t seriously considered SoftWindows, and this predates Virtual PC), and I loved the fact that it uses Mac files as PC hard drives. Want to boot from your E: drive, or maybe your L: drive instead of the standard C: drive? Just swap the files in the PC Setup control panel. Try that on a PC! I even got the network working (although Apple’s DOS software is confusing – not up to Apple standards in terms of interface and documentation, even under DOS).
There was only one problem. Windows crashed constantly, especially when I copied files. I tried everything I could think of, but my deadline loomed, so I reluctantly removed the card. I could assume only that I had a slightly defective or unfinished card, and I didn’t have time to buy and test another card in the event that Windows crashes continued.
The Pentium 150 — So, I decided that the safest move was to buy a PC clone. A store near here called Computer Stop builds machines from components for reasonable prices, and my Internet provider uses them for Linux boxes. From the Computer Stop, I ordered a Pentium 150 with 32 MB of RAM and a 2 GB disk. It cost about $2,300, which was a little less than a comparable Mac system, but not much less. I specifically got a 150 MHz Pentium, so I could claim (to people who didn’t know that I was comparing apples and oranges) that this PC was theoretically equivalent to my Power Mac 8500 running at 150 MHz.
After I brought it home and stuffed it into a tiny desk in the corner (I’m not worried about the ergonomics, as you’ll see in a moment), I managed to get the PC up and running, as well as onto my Ethernet network and the Internet. For the most part connecting it was easy, mainly because I’m good at configuring Macs for the Internet, so I know what all the numbers mean. Irritatingly enough, it seems that Windows 95 requires that you restart the PC if you change even the smallest network or video setting.
The first order of business after putting the PC on the Internet was to purchase and install Farallon’s Timbuktu Pro. I wasn’t about to jump back and forth between my Mac and this PC, and it’s easy to buy Timbuktu Pro online with a minimum of fuss. That enabled me to run the PC in a window on my second monitor and use my primary monitor for writing chapters in Nisus Writer. (I later converted these chapters to Word 6 via DataViz’s crash-prone but effective MacLink Plus translators, since Osborne had specific requirements that necessitated Word 6.) Luckily, I was using a Kensington TurboMouse trackball (the older two-button version, not the current four-button unit), so I could set the second button to emulate the PC’s right mouse button. Otherwise I would have had to use the Command key to trigger the second mouse button, which is awkward.
Once I’d slaved the PC to my Macintosh, I wanted to integrate it into my backup scheme. Crashes weren’t infrequent on this PC, considering how little I used it, and (no matter what) I wanted good backups of my screenshots. Even more confusing, this PC always tries to run ScanDisk after a crash, and it makes me crazy to answer ScanDisk’s questions about lost fragments that might or might not be part of files. If I’d been using the PC Compatibility Card, I would have saved all the screenshots to a folder on the Mac that I could have defined as something like the K: drive. Luckily, Dantz Development has a Windows 95 version of Retrospect Remote (now called Retrospect Client). A Macintosh-based Retrospect backup server can back up the PC, and the PC version looks and works almost the same as the Mac version.
The PC was in daily use for a few weeks but only for a short while each day, so I wanted Retrospect to back it up whenever it was on. I added the PC to my Backup Server script, which we normally use only for our PowerBooks that appear on the network briefly, and that strategy worked well. The only drawback (other than the fact that Windows 95 seems to change all sorts of files for no reason at all) was that Retrospect on the Mac can’t handle filenames longer than 31 characters, whereas Windows 95 can have longer filenames. Retrospect 3.0 renames the files and tells you that it’s done so, which is nice, but quickly fills up the log file. This is fixed in the forthcoming Retrospect 4.0.
All Was Not Well — Then came my first nightmare problem. The PC started freezing shortly after boot. Sometimes it even rebooted itself! I did everything I thought might help: I re-seated SIMMs, shut off startup programs, reinstalled Windows 95… and I couldn’t trace the problem. Finally, a hunch told me it was related to the network, and indeed, the machine never crashed when it wasn’t connected to the network. I tried moving the 3Com PCI Ethernet card to a different slot – bad idea. Windows 95 wanted to reinstall the drivers for the card at that point, and I couldn’t find a disk with them, or rather, with the one file I didn’t have. Eventually, I managed to download the complete driver set from 3Com’s Web site via my Mac and get it to the PC, but overall, I was frustrated and unimpressed. Talk about plug and pray!
A switch in my head finally clicked, and I turned off Retrospect Remote. No crashes. Something had changed on the PC such that whenever my Backup Server script tried to back up the PC, the PC crashed. I uninstalled Retrospect Remote (it does that cleanly), then reinstalled it, and everything worked again.
Transferring Files — If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll remember I had my manuscript files on the Mac in (eventually) Word 6 format, while most of my screenshots were TIFF files on the PC. (I had a number of Mac screenshots as well, which I took with Snapz Pro and converted to TIFFs with the free clip2gif – see TidBITS-372.) How then to get them to my editor who has a PC and uses cc:Mail, which deals with attachments haphazardly?
I had almost no trouble sending Word 6 files to her via email (using uuencoding in Eudora Pro) and ironically, she commented that she had less trouble receiving files from me than most people. (Amusing, given I was using the Macintosh versions of Eudora Pro and Word 6, after converting the files from Nisus Writer.) Despite this luck, nothing I did from either the Mac or the PC would get a TIFF file through cc:Mail intact. So, I set up a password-protected folder on an internal email and FTP server, and sent my editor the full URL, with the username and password built in. She couldn’t use an FTP client because of a corporate firewall, but luckily Netscape Navigator was able to download the Zip files containing my screenshots.
When I had to move screenshots between the Mac and the PC, I used the Exchange feature in Timbuktu Pro. Unfortunately, drag & drop doesn’t work between the Mac and the PC (at least between the versions I used), and Timbuktu Pro under Windows 95 doesn’t support long filenames! I had named all my Mac screenshots with nine character filenames, so Timbuktu Pro deleted a character when I copied them to the PC. That drove me nuts.
Impressions — After working with the PC and Windows 95 for a few months (mostly using Internet Explorer and Internet Mail and Internet News, since those are the programs AT&T WorldNet now recommends for its users), I have to say that Windows 95 is usable. It’s not good, and I’m amazed by the interface atrocities it contains. But it is usable.
For instance, clicking the Start menu (which looks like all the other buttons on the Taskbar, despite being a menu) to get to the Shutdown command is so backwards it isn’t funny. Restarting the entire computer to make a small networking or video change is a pain in the posterior. You can minimize a window to an icon on the Taskbar or maximize it to take up the entire screen, but you can’t zoom the window to the "appropriate" size, as you can in most Mac applications. Perhaps it’s just my Mac habits, but I found moving and copying files confusing, because you use the left mouse button to move files and the right to copy them. At some point I needed to print all the screenshots in a chapter, so I selected them, right-clicked to bring up a pop-up menu, and chose Print. I figured they’d print in filename order, or in chronological order (which was the same as filename order). Instead, they printed in random order. I asked some Windows gurus about this, and the best suggestion was that Norton Utilities has a directory-sorting utility that might help. I opted instead to print each screenshot as I took it.
Will I use the PC on a daily basis? No, definitely not. I have not found anything I want to do on the PC that I can’t do just as well or better on my Mac. The PC feels clunkier and slower, even when I use it directly rather than via Timbuktu Pro. If I had a lot more time, I’d probably try playing with Linux, Windows NT, or OpenStep, but it’s not worth the effort for my interest level.
That said, I’m glad I have the machine. It’s best to know more of what you’re talking about when you criticize something. Although I’m unlikely to become a Windows expert, I can check claims made by Windows users to see if they’re blowing hot air. And, to be honest, from an economic standpoint I make much of my livelihood from writing about the Internet. There’s little difference between using a Web browser on a PC or on a Mac. If I limited myself to writing about the Internet from the point of view of the Macintosh, I’d have a harder time finding publishers, especially since the Mac book market is being swallowed in the same self-fulfilling prophecy that destroyed retail Macintosh software in computer stores. If, as a Mac user, I can ensure the Macintosh gets a fair representation in cross-platform books that sell well, that’s better than writing purely Macintosh books that few people read.