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Adam Engst No comments

Command Keys

Nisus 3.0 has some nice features, one of which allows you to map any menu item to a command key sequence. In previous versions you were limited to just combinations of the command key and another letter, but that has changed in 3.0. Now you can add the control, shift, or option keys and you are even allowed to use the function keys and the keys on the numeric keypad. Wait, there’s more. If you want to assign a mnemonic sequence to a command, say, Edit Macro, you could just use Command-E, but that may already be in use for Extend. In Nisus 3.0 you can assign up to three alphanumeric keys in addition to the modifier key, so on my system, Edit Macro is mapped to Command-EM (which is achieved by hitting Command-E and then M while the command key is still down). This smells slightly of WordStar’s arcane commands, but because you assign the keys they hopefully aren’t particularly arcane.

The point of this article is not to crow about Nisus, although it’s hard to avoid at times. Instead, the problem arose that Nisus does not allow you to just use a modifier key other than the command key along with an alphanumeric key. jOn mAtOUsEk (that’s how he capitalizes it, not me) wrote that part of Nisus and on Usenet defended his decision by saying that the Apple guidelines want every modifier key sequence to include the command key. Evidently he took enough flak for allowing multiple alphanumeric keys to be assigned to a command and decided not to further stretch Apple’s rules. This inability frustrated some people on Usenet who wanted to map all the basic editing commands of the mainframe EMACS editor to Nisus – I won’t speculate as to why :-).

When jOn asked what everyone thought about the command keys, the general consensus was that users should be able to use all the modifier keys without having to include the command key, contrary to Apple guidelines. One person suggested that there be an option to toggle that feature so as not to confuse new users, although command keys tend not to be the confusing part for beginners.

It seems to us that everyone should have the maximum flexibility in configuring the short-cuts in a program because short-cuts by definition should be personalized and easy to use. There’s no need to force a certain key into everyone’s short-cuts. Also, Paragon has chosen a good method of going about this by defining some of the common command key equivalents such as Command-B for Bold, etc., but they leave the use of the fancier customization options totally to the user. In contrast, Microsoft’s Word 4.0 defines many command keys extremely haphazardly. For instance, Section Format is Option-F14 for no apparent reason. I have no idea what it is set to if you don’t have an extended keyboard. Users can modify all of Word 4.0’s command keys, but they are less likely to because of the definitions Microsoft included. The main problem with customizing Word 4.0 is that users have control over menu items as well, so a user can completely move the menu items around. Presumably Microsoft did this so people could create a reasonable interface for Word – the Table commands are in three different menus – but the feature is a nightmare for consultants ("So where did you put the Save item?"). In addition, macro packages like QuicKeys allow you do assign modifier key sequences to actions without using the command key. So, Paragon, we vote that you allow users to avoid using the command key if they want.

Paragon Concepts — 800/922-2993 — 619/481-1477

Information from:
Pete Keleher — [email protected]
Jon Matousek — [email protected]
Gilbert Harman — [email protected]
Chaz Larson — [email protected]
Wolfgang N. Naegeli — [email protected]
Sherman Wilcox — [email protected]
Adam C. Engst — TidBITS Editor

Adam Engst No comments

Upgrades Anyone?

Being relatively environmentally conscious and ever so practical, upgrades have become something of a bother for me. I love getting the new version of the program replete with new features, often with a new manual. Most upgrades replace the old versions of the program I was using and I never begrudge the companies the (usually) reasonable upgrade fees because it is expensive to put out new versions of the manual and mail it out and all that. However, doesn’t it seem to be a huge waste to just throw out that old program? After all, it served its purpose relatively well for some time or you wouldn’t have used it. The only company that has recognized this dilemma is WordPerfect, which allows you to donate your copies of older versions of WordPerfect software to educational institutions (K-12 only). I don’t know exactly if the copy will become eligible for further upgrades, but the institution will receive a free license to use that copy.

I propose a further step. Instead of just being able to donate the older versions of software to schools, why not just let people sell it or give it away as a working product, which it is. The company (with a letter from the original owner transferring registration) could recognize the new owner but not allow that person any access to technical support or updates. This seems uncharitable, because people are unlikely to buy a new copy of a program they already own for full price. So why not allow the new owner to enjoy full rights to support (such as it may be) and updates? The company would then lose the income from the original sale, but would gain a user who would be likely to purchase updates. More importantly, each time a program went through an upgrade, the installed base for that program would have the ability to double in size, and no one would sneer at that kind of increase.

The main argument against my proposal as far as I can tell is that the software companies would lose money on original sales. This is true, but the increased revenue from upgrades should make up the difference. I also believe that the increased number of users would help in building product and company loyalty. Lots of people still use Word and Excel even though other programs do many things better just because it would be too hard to switch. Many companies would also have to change their systems so each copy of the program had a serial number and that number would obviously change each time a user upgraded. Currently, many companies let you keep your old registration number.

Interestingly enough, when I posed this question on Usenet, no one responded at all. The mainframe could have been acting up and failed to send my message out, but if not, why the complete lack of response? If you have comments about my proposal, I would like to hear them and will do another article if the comments warrant it. Send everything to one of my electronic addresses (check the About… card). Also, if you agree that upgrades should work as I think, let software companies know and mention TidBITS. The current practice of essentially leasing the right to use a program is strange enough that it would be nice to have at least the right to let someone else use an old version of your program.

WordPerfect Information Services — 801/225-5000

Information from:
Adam C. Engst — TidBITS Editor
John Garland — [email protected]
WPCorp Report — Jan-90, pg. 22

Adam Engst No comments

Handwriting Technology

A number of articles in recent trade magazines have talked about wonders of new laptops that will recognize ordinary handwriting. Three companies, GRiD Systems, Go Corp., and Active Book Company all have announced or are shipping a computer that performs this feat. In addition, Microsoft is working on extensions to DOS and OS/2 (and probably Windows) to allow PC-clones to recognize handwriting. At least the Go system, called PenPoint, and the Active Book entry, which uses the Unix-based Helios OS, are not based on MS-DOS.

These computers and their respective operating systems are all quite interesting, but a more practical question does show its ugly head. What good are these beasties? GRiD specifically markets its current laptop, which can recognize neatly handwritten block characters, towards people who fill in forms in non-desk environments. The other two machines have yet to see the light of day, although IBM, Lotus, and Borland are betting on Go’s technology and have already licensed it. Active Book is aiming its computer at executives who don’t type, although we have little sympathy for executives who can’t type faster than they can write since typing is a far more efficient method of entering text.

Other than the small number of people who fit into GRiD’s niche, there seem to be few other good uses for handwriting as an main input method. The best argument so far seems to be that the pen offers an easy way to input both text and graphics, although it certainly would not help those of us who are genetically unable to draw. Other advantages include reduced size of laptops, quiet entry of text when in meetings or libraries, the ability to do something with the other hand such as holding a book or a telephone, ease of use for those who only have one hand, the ability to check handwriting for security’s sake, and finally, the ability to easily input text in a language that uses pictures, such as Chinese. Of these, the final one seems to be the most persuasive, considering the enormous keyboards used for entering Chinese text.

All these advantages are fine and dandy, but there are many disadvantages still to be addressed with this technology. The first seems to be the simple problem that handwriting is a slow and inefficient method of entering text. A pen-based laptop would be useless without a keyboard for writing anything longer than short memos. Other problems have to do with the small practical points surrounding a laptop. For instance, to write on a screen, the screen would have to be flat in front of you, which isn’t a comfortable (or safe) position to work for any amount of time. One solution would be to use a drafting table, although they aren’t particularly portable. The pen would have to be attached to the computer in some way or it would incredibly easy to lose – not a big deal with a ballpoint, but more of a pain with your input stylus. The screen would get dirty quickly because of the constant contact with your skin (most of us write with our hand rubbing on the writing surface), which would reduce visibility and clarity.

In essence, then, handwriting recognition will at some point be a useful adjunct to other methods of data entry, most notably the keyboard, but it has quite a ways to go before it could be standard on personal computers. One positive reaction handwriting technology might have is to force designers to think more carefully about the relationship their machines have with the environment they are used in. Then devices that are more efficient, easier to use, and safer (carpal tunnel syndrome is a nasty problem) might start showing up on the market.

Information from:
James H. Coombs — JAZBO@BROWNVM
Dr Madill — [email protected]
John Turnbull — [email protected]
Michael Portuesi — [email protected]
KESSLER — [email protected]
Adam C. Engst — TidBITS Editor

Related articles:
InfoWorld — 20-Aug-90, Vol. 12 #34, pg. 5
PC WEEK — 20-Aug-90, Vol. 7 #33, pg. 1
InfoWorld — 23-Jul-90, Vol. 12 #30, pg. 1
PC WEEK — 23-Jul-90, Vol. 7 #29, pg. 135

Adam Engst No comments

Just Stuff It

Usenet may be one of the greatest information resources of all time, but it does have its problems (the price for an anarchy that really works). The latest massive argument in the Macintosh groups has brought out some interesting issues, however, instead of just the usual personal invective. The issue is the format in which the public domain and shareware software is stored at the public archive sites. In the old days of about a month ago, there was only one format that made any sense at all, the one used by StuffIt 1.5.1 from Raymond Lau. StuffIt 1.5.1 had been stable and available for several years, which made it a prime target for ambitious young compression freaks. Now there are several useful programs which can compress files around 50%, most notably Disk Doubler from Salient, Compactor (from Bill Goodman), the shareware Diamond, and of course StuffIt Deluxe from Aladdin Systems.

The StuffIt format isn’t as compact as the newer ones, so many, including the Macintosh BBS that TidBITS goes to directly in Ithaca, Memory Alpha, have switched to another program, commonly StuffIt Deluxe. However, since StuffIt Deluxe is a commercial product, many were concerned that they would be forced into purchasing it. Luckily Aladdin does include the free UnStuffIt Deluxe and is releasing StuffIt 1.6, which continues as shareware and reads and writes the StuffIt Deluxe format, though it will presumably lack many of StuffIt Deluxe’s advanced features. So in reality a change to StuffIt Deluxe format is not unreasonable. The principle of the matter is another story, because the StuffIt Deluxe format is proprietary, so the other compression programs will be unable to expand StuffIt Deluxe archives, whereas they can now expand the StuffIt 1.5.1 archives. Obviously, Aladdin has the right to keep its formats proprietary, but some feel that proprietary formats should not be used for storing public information.

Our feeling is that either Aladdin should open the StuffIt Deluxe format to the public (and not just to qualified developers) or that the archives should remain in StuffIt 1.5.1 format. As much as the new shareware version of StuffIt will do the job, all of the other compression programs are basically as good, and all include free expansion programs as well. If nothing else, all public archive should use the same format because it is difficult for new users to deal with the fact that the neat new program they just downloaded is compressed in X format, but they only have Y expansion program and where do you get X program anyway and this is confusing and maybe it’s not worth the effort anyway because it’s such a hassle. Believe me, I went through that once with various compression and archiving programs on mainframes and it is confusing. Let’s just stick with one compression format, it doesn’t matter which one particularly, and make that one available to the public for anyone to use. Then StuffIt Deluxe, Disk Doubler, and Compactor can all compete on speed and extra features like automatic compression and expansion, which really make the difference these days.

Salient Software — 800/326-0092 — 415/852-9567
Aladdin Systems — 408/685-9175

Information from:
Nicolas Berloquin — [email protected]
Leonard Rosenthol — [email protected]
Jim Matthews — [email protected]
David Walton — [email protected]
Marty Connor — [email protected]
Ken Hancock — [email protected]
Dane Spearing — [email protected]
Adam C. Engst — TidBITS Editor