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Technology to be thankful for

As Thanksgiving approaches, it seems appropriate to count our digital blessings.

October 19, 1998
Web posted at 5:00 PM EDT

by Stephen Manes

(IDG) -- In these frantic times, when the whole world can seem almost as frustrating as a corrupted .dll file, those of us whose lives revolve around computers sometimes seem to spend our time focusing on their problems rather than their benefits. But just this once, at the time when most of us are thinking of gathering together to give thanks, it seems appropriate to count our digital blessings. Here's my list:

Multitasking: Probably the most underrated feature of modern computers. Consider the way you work today, with several programs open at once. You cut from one, paste to another, drag, drop, flip among them with the Taskbar or the Alt and Tab keys. With Windows 95 and 98, it works well enough most of the time.

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Imagine having to save what you're working on, close the application, load your Web browser every time you want to use it, then close the browser and reopen the app in order to get back to work. Imagine an e-mail client that can't receive mail in the background. Now imagine how much less valuable your Internet connection would be if you had to use it this way.

It's in there

The Web: Despite problems with security, reliability, usability, and bandwidth, the Web remains an amazing source of information, misinformation, entertainment, idiocy, and everything in between. Somehow, the stuff you want just tends to be there; clear evidence of the Web's importance is the surprise you feel when you actually can't find something on it. Though electronic commerce still has a long way to go, the Web makes things happen.

Search engines: No, they're not perfect, but they make the difference between a rigid, totalitarian Web and a free one. More than anything else, search engines transformed the Web from an interesting means of publishing linked documents into an indispensable global tool. Next wave: using local versions to manage personal information on your hard disk.

Internet mail: Those of us who remember the days when e-mail systems were islands unto themselves can't help giving thanks for the ability to send mail to people all over the world. Bulletproof standards for attachments are needed, and major questions remain about the proper roles of server and client, but few things have become quite as essential quite as fast. Want to make me even more thankful? Develop smarter mail clients.

Moore's Law: Less than $1000 gets you a fast computer with plenty of memory, decent video, a big hard drive, a fast modem, and all the standard ports. Peripherals are cheaper too; even flat-panel displays are approaching the realm of affordability. I suspect price/performance ratios may be slower to improve in the next year or so, but the overall trend shows no signs of stopping. Thank you, Gordon Moore.

Seeing the light

Light computers: I've been harping on the need for truly portable PCs for years, so it's gratifying to see them become reality. From shirt-pocket devices like the Psion Series 5 to the three-pound magnesium-cased beauties pioneered by the Sony VAIO 505, little machines are finally coming of age. I'm thankful, and so are my back, shoulders, and arms.

Digital innovation: The ferment in electronics and communications continues. Both industries are awash in new ideas, some of which will cleverly take advantage of increasing bandwidth, storage, and processing power. Devices like the PalmPilot, the Rex, and two-way pagers with tiny keyboards may be niche items now, but as they meld with our phones, they'll become far more useful. Set-top boxes, home networking, and data broadcasting all have potential, though it's too early to tell digital boons from digital doorstops. And while the inevitable gaps between idea, product, and marketing realities will turn many dreams to dust, some of those dreams will lead to things you and I come to depend on.

And in the year that gave its name to Windows 98, I have plenty of other things to be thankful for. One is that Thanksgiving will be a day to contemplate literal turkeys instead of silicon ones.

PC World Contributing Editor Stephen Manes has been writing about computers and their blessings for more than 15 years. He is coauthor of "Gates, a biography of Microsoft's chairman."

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