June 29, 1998:
As if Microsoft didn't have enough to worry about, it looks like a chap in Illinois trademarked the product name "Internet Explorer" a couple of years before MS turned IE loose. MS has been fighting him quietly since then (claiming that the term is generic) but the judge seems to be leaning in the opposite direction. And if MS wins, it means that anybody could turn something loose and call it Internet Explorer. Talk about being on the horns of a dilemma…
June 24, 1998:
A new (and cool) acronym to watch: ION, the Integrated On-demand Network, which is Sprint's audacious move to completely recast the nation's telephone system along Internet lines. Traditional phone service creates a dedicated connection between two phones that persists until one hangs up—which is expected to be a matter of minutes. ION simply leaves phones "off hook" all day, and when the user wants to make a call, he or she essentially speaks into software that creates packets that are routed, IP-style, to their destination. In essence, it's Internet Phone converted to a public utility. Sprint is looking to bring the service to homes using connections other than existing twisted pair, including TV cable and even power lines. (The intent is for bandwidth in the T1-class.) Billing will not be by time but by bits transferred. The technology is sound—and fanatics like me would sign up in a minute. Whether it works on a national basis depends entirely on the greediness of their pricing. Let's watch. The corporate telecomm biz (composed of people often making half a million bucks a year) is not known for its pricing savvy. This could be the future of Internet access, as many have predicted for the last couple of years.
June 22, 1998:
From the Too Smart By Half Dept. (As Jerry Pournelle used to say…) I was working on my SF novel over the weekend, typing along in MS Word 97 at 100+ WPM, when something stopped me cold. There was a "smiley face" character (character 01 in the PC character set) in my text. Figuring I had fumbled some obscure control character sequence by mistake, I moved the cursor back, deleted the smiley, and retyped the passage. Sure as hell, there it was again. I nuked it again and retyped the passage very…very…slowly. As I typed the sequence "(Shout:)" it showed up, replacing the two characters ":)". I suppose if I ever used emoticons I would have been ready for this, but I don't. (Writers are supposed to know how to be humorous without waving a flag over it.) Regardless, this little gem gets the Most Useless Feature of the Decade Award, and it will probably be a long time before it passes the trophy on to something else.
June 18, 1998:
The W3C has submitted yet another standard for comments. It's called SMIL (Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language) and it coordinates the disparate elements of multimedia content and keeps them working in step. For example, if you have an animation and separate sound clips that follow changes in the animation sequence, there's no good way to keep them in synch with current HTML-based technologies. SMIL changes that. It allows the creation of video-like content without necessarily changing low-bandwidth elements like text into high-bandwidth video for delivery. The notation is fairly simple and should be easy to pick up. Watch for an overview in an upcoming VDM. For more, go to www.w3.org/AudioVideo/.
June 17, 1998:
To keep themselves from being totally drowned in FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests, the FBI has loaded endless reports of "unusual phenomena" onto the Web. Where else can you dowload megabytes of text describing cattle mutilations in New Mexico? So the next time a stone-faced redhead holding her gun badly kicks her way through your door, tell her to dial up www.fbi.gov. That should keep her busy for awhile.
June 16, 1998:
I went digging into the Netscape Navigator bookmark file last night, trying to express it as a Delphi data structure. Hit a wall when I realized I had no clue what the time stamp encoding algorithm is. Looks like a count of seconds passed since early 1980, but boy, if anybody knows the precise formula, I'd sure like to have it. (Has anybody run across it yet in the Mozilla source code?)
June 15, 1998:
Borland…er…Inprise (yikes, I'll never get used to saying that!) just announced Delphi 4. Delphi's now a pretty mature product, especially for the desktop developer, and most of the gain for this upgrade falls to the distributed enterprise application developer. One-Step CORBA is the single most visible new feature, but there are a host of smaller improvements, including a few (like a true 64-bit integer) that will interest the desktop developer. I particularly like the hierarchical project browser (I'm a hierarchies kind of guy) but overall it looks well worthwhile. Delphi 4 Standard Edition is $99.95, Professional is $799, and Enterprise Client/Server is $2495. Owners of previous Delphi versions can get Professional for $249.95, and I would see that as the mainstream door into one of programming's slickest environments.
June 12, 1998:
I just got the last issue of Byte. I mean, the last—after 23 years of continuous publication, Byte follows Creative Computing, Kilobaud, PC Tech Journal, and literally hundreds of other technical journals into oblivion. Seems like only yesterday (though yeek, it was 1980!) when we would race down to the computer store to grab the latest, inch-thick issue, to drool over monstrous CP/M systems (operating at a sizzling 4 Mhz) and Z80 software guaranteed to run in only 8K of RAM. Byte was at its best when computing was a multitude of warring factions struggling for supremacy. When the IBM PC arrived in quantity in 1982, the era of specialization began, and Byte was never a specialists' mag. Also going down is a little-known record: Jerry Pournelle's continuous contribution of over 20 years of "Chaos Manner" columns, unequalled and unlikely to be equalled, since I have my doubts that any other computer magazine will ever again persist for 23 years in more than name only. Jerry's son Alex informs me that Jerry will continue to hold forth on his Web site www.jerrypournelle.com. Supposedly, Byte's new owners will resurrect the magazine sometime later this year or early next year—but you, I, and Feanor all know that you can only forge the silmarils once.
June 10, 1998:
TurboPower Software's new SysTools2 product showed up this morning, with (in additional to a truckload of other useful stuff) several units of astronomical procedures and functions to calculate rise and set times for the sun and moon, phases of the moon, the date of Easter, and even the sky coordinates for all the planets but Pluto. (Which even if you knew where it was, you couldn't find with anything short of a 15-inch scope. Been there. Tried that. Saw nada.) $199. Looks like fun to me. www.turbopower.com.
June 8, 1998:
Years ago (and I mean years ago) I used to buy these great full-page plastic reference cards from a little company called MicroLogic. Their 8086 assembler card taught me most of everything that Michael Abrash didn't, and their GW BASIC card got me through my first year or so with the original IBM PC, when there wasn't much else available. Seems they vanished for a long time, but they just sent me a new Micro Chart for JavaScript. It's not plastic anymore, but it's also six pages long, folded twice like a monster blue card. I love these things. Looks like they have a lot more. www.miclog.com.
June 5, 1998:
Spent most of this past week in Chicago at Book Expo America, and saw two remarkable "book on demand" operations of interest to small software developers. Both IBM and Xerox have developed super hi-res, high-speed laser printers that print on continuous roll paper, almost like miniature offset printing presses. Both firms have set up subsidiaries to act as service bureaus, capable of producing high-quality perfect-bound books with glossy four-color covers, quantity one-at a unit price of between $2 and $4, depending on the size of the book. They're targeting the service at small press, and to keep low-volume books from going out of print entirely. But you and I know the real application here is going to be software documentation for small developers, especially shareware developers whose volumes are smallish and unpredictable. Go take a look: IBM and Ingram's partnership LightningPrint is at www.lightningprint.com. The Xerox system Book In Time is not quite so far along; contact Ray McClure at 716-422-3586 or ray.mcclure@usa.xerox.com.