Looking back at 1999 in Computing

In my first column or three this year I thought I’d take a look back at last year and maybe even take a brief look at what the future might hold from a computing viewpoint.

The big issue during 1999 was the millennium bug and fears that could wreak havoc with computer systems causing serious inconvenience to all and sundry or, in the worst case scenario, bringing an end to western civilisation as we know it. In the event, little disruption was caused and many commentators are saying the whole thing was a lot of hype anyway.  I personally incline to the school of thought which believes that many of our most vital computer systems were under threat.

This has not been a year in which there have been any really earth-shaking advances in the world of personal computing but improved versions of just about everything have arrived in the shops. Computer prices have remained fairly static over the year but faster Celeron and Pentium II & III chips, and larger hard drives mean you’re getting more for your money than at the beginning of the year. 

None of the software releases this year were all that exciting and, although I was pretty pleased to get my hands on Front Page 2000 and Publisher 2000 when they arrived, I was a bit less enthusiastic about the rest of Microsoft Office 2000. Corel WordPerfect Office 2000 and Corel Print Office arrived late in the year and were both very nice products. 

Apple Computer made great strides back from the brink of extinction with their colourful iMac computers and a number of new products including the G4 which has the reputation of being a Pentium killer and the fastest desktop computer ever. You will pay something over R25000 for a G4 and the rather awesome 22-inch Apple Cinema Display LCD screen (when it arrives on our shores) but I should think they would be worth it. 

One of the biggest non-events of the year was when a US court found that Microsoft was a monopoly and that this had adversely affected the consumer. There seems to be little question that Microsoft did harm its competitors in any way it could but, when it comes to consumers, the matter is at least arguable; and you can count on the fact that they will argue, ad nauseum. 

Even if the judgement is eventually upheld, however, it’s likely to be years before any conclusion is reached is reached on what do about it. The whole monopoly question may become moot anyway if, as I believe will happen, the company’s market share is eroded to the extent that it no longer has an effective monopoly. 

Linux, a powerful new competitor in the operating systems market, has been hanging around in the wings for some time but is now very nearly ready for the big time. It has already gained itself an enviable reputation for power and stability when used to run computer servers and it is coming ever closer to being viable for the masses. 

Linux has the priceless advantages that it is usually either free, or sold at a nominal fee, and that there is vast amount of free software available for it. There are going to be lots and lot of people who will use it as soon as it gets easy enough. 

Continued 

This week I’ll finish off my retrospective on the past year in computing and then I’ll take a quick look ahead at what we can expect this year. 

One of the technologies which found wide acceptance last year is USB, or Universal Serial Bus, which is a way of connecting peripherals to computers. USB gives you much faster data transfer speeds and it’s handier than using parallel or serial cables because you don’t have to switch off your computer before plugging and unplugging peripherals. 

I tested a good few USB peripherals last year and found them very easy to install whereas, in the bad old days, the process was often complex and about as painful as pulling your leg off of your body. You can plug in as many peripherals as you like without being haunted by the fear that you won’t have enough IRQs to go around. 

Don’t worry about if you don’t know what IRQs are. You sleep much better not knowing, just as you do if you don’t know how sausages are made.  USB wins my Really-Makes-Computing-Easier award for 1999. I, for one, would certainly think twice if a USB version of the peripheral I want is not available. 

Late last year I had a look at an advert from an electronics store and saw that there were about a dozen video recorders on offer alongside three DVD players. I predict that this ratio will have changed by next year as DVD becomes more mainstream and VCRs speed faster and faster towards oblivion. 

The thing to watch out for when buying a DVD player is that the discs are designed to work only in a particular region meaning that you won’t be able to play discs bought in the US if you buy a player that can only handle the discs intended for sale in our region. The movie companies didn’t want us to be able to buy movies on DVD before they are released in theatres here but, fortunately for us, there are multi-zone players available. 

More and more computers are going to be equipped with DVD Drives and some believe that this will lead to the situation where our computers and TV sets will be combined into one monolithic unit. I have my doubts about this because the two appliances belong in different rooms even though they can be combined technically. 

How many of you, for example, can imagine having your computers in your lounges and trying to work with the family whining at you because they’d rather be watching Egoli. It’s happening already that people are receiving television and connecting to the Internet via a single cable but I’m pretty sure that the appliances they use to do this will remain largely separate. 

One of the major software events on the horizon will be the launch of Windows 2000 next month. W2K is the successor to the heavyweight Windows NT and is supposedly the most tested Microsoft product ever to be released. 

It comes in server and workstation versions and has already attracted a lot of favourable reports from reviewers who have commented on what a vast improvement it is over Windows NT 4. I’ve already had a test version of the workstation version installed on my machine and I was impressed. 

More on Windows 2000 another time.

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