A BOX WITH A KEYBOARD

There is a prevailing assumption that computers have either reached their peak, or they will reach it soon. This assumption, however, is essentially incorrect;
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A BOX WITH A KEYBOARD

Dec 1, 1998 12:00 PM, Bob Bushnell

There is a prevailing assumption that computers have either reached theirpeak, or they will reach it soon. This assumption, however, is essentiallyincorrect; although computers are running faster, they are not necessarilyrunning smarter. Such features as PCI bus (peripheral componentimport/export) and caching enhance the computer's operational speed, butthey do not really alter the actual means by which a computer operates. Forthe foreseeable future, the computer will remain a box with a keyboard.

In fact, the computer field is still in a state of infancy. A small companycalled MITS introduced the Altair computer for hobbyists in 1974. Thecompany lasted about two years. In 1977, Apple introduced the Apple II, andin 1979, Radio Shack introduced the TRS-80. In 1980, IBM introduced thefirst PC. Bear in mind that all of this happened approximately 20 years ago.

There are parallels in other industries. For example, Daimler developed thefirst practical four-wheel car in 1889. In 1910, 21 years later, Ford wasin the second year of production for the Model T. Although the Model T wasmechanically superior to Daimler's creation, the principles upon which theywere both designed to function remained constant, and many of the basicelements inherent in automotive design are unchanged to this very day.

Expect some changesThe computer industry is by no means static. Voice-recognition systems,when perfected, will increase computer flexibility. The same desktopcomputer will consequently recognize different voices when you enter yourname or utter a code word. Basic voice-recognition systems are nowavailable, but they are far from flawless. If, for example, you happen tosuffer from a cold, your voice temporarily changes character, and withavailable technology, the computer will probably not recognize you.

Do not be the first to install a voice-recognition system. It would be abetter idea to wait at least six months to a year. OCR (optical characterrecognition), experienced a similar phenomenon. During its initialincarnation, OCR software was more of a detriment, but over the last twoyears, it has improved. Those who waited for its complete developmentspared themselves quite a bit of hassle.

Admittedly, the basic nature of software will probably change at some pointdown the road, but do not hold your breath. The quantity of featuresavailable for word processors, spreadsheets and CAD applications havedramatically increased only because we demanded them. Radical change canonly be fostered by popular demand.

Likewise, computers will run even faster than they do now. Today, 400 MHzmachines are available, but five years ago, 50 MHz machines were thestandard. Nevertheless, current design rests upon the foundation of serialprocessing, and improvements to processor speed came from refining thistechnology. Some companies are currently experimenting with parallelprocessing, which will probably be the next major change. Upon establishingits viability, parallel processing will usher in a new generation ofcomputers with much higher processor speeds.

Not everything, however, will change for change's sake alone. Keyboarddesigns, for example, are not perched on the precipice of completemetamorphosis. The differences between the first QWERTY typewriterkeyboards and the modern computer keyboard are relatively slight. TheDvorak keyboard, invented some 40 years ago, is considerably moreefficient, but the QWERTY format is so widespread that the Dvorak willnever enjoy the same popularity.

CAD systems and EDACAD systems, a subset of EDA (electronic design automation), are becomingincreasingly flexible, and to provide that additional flexibility, theyhave also become more complex. It will be several years, however, beforeyou can draw using voice-recognition systems with your CAD application.

Consider, for example, the words necessary to draw a rectangle on screen.Assume the screen parameters, sheet size, and drawing scale have beenestablished.

Begin by placing the rectangle. "Place rectangle four feet by five feetbeginning location four and seven." That sentence is ambiguous only if youhappened to use the wrong syntax. Parsing the sentence, the word "place"advises that an object-a box, line, text string, dimension line or titlebox-will be placed on screen. "Rectangle" establishes the object'sidentity. "Four feet by five feet" fixes the object's size, but rememberthat either the X dimension or the Y dimension is spoken first. "Beginninglocation" advises where the object will be placed on the sheet. "Four andseven" advises the location, but again, remember whether the X or Yreference is spoken first.

CAD optionsThere are a number of CAD applications now on the market, most of which arecompatible with Windows 95. When selecting a CAD application, there arethree primary issues to consider-the usable operating system, menuconfiguration and file compatibility.

By a usable operating system, I mean Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows NT orMac System 8.1. If you still use a DOS command structure, be aware that thenumber of applications that run under a DOS structure or Windows 3.1 isdecreasing. Also, a given software company may state that its product iscompatible with Windows 95, but it may run with a DOS-style menu structure.Determine the degree of compatibility with which the software actually runs.

AutoCAD, now in its 14th release, is a standard by which most other CADapplications are measured. It has two offspring-AutoCAD LT and Auto-Sketch.Because AutoCAD has been around since the days of the DOS command line, itsmenu structure does not exactly resemble Microsoft's. That same classicmenu structure is used in AutoCAD LT and AutoSketch because there arethousands of draftsmen and engineers who learned by that system. AutoSketchand the latest version of AutoCAD LT provide the Microsoft menu structureas a built-in option.

Menu structure is an important issue because it will be your operatingbase. Drafting is much more than simply drawing lines; you draw circles,arcs, dimension lines, text, title blocks and cross-hatching. There is theneed to move and change elements. If you do not know your way around themenu, you will waste time. Using one CAD application for block diagrams,one for schematics and another for presentations without sharing the samemenu structure will limit speed and flexibility and increase frustration.

File compatibility is an obvious concern. Before purchasing newapplications, check file compatibility with existing software. It might nothurt to verify file compatibility with other standards in the industry.Failure to consider file compatibility may mean that all older files willbe rendered unreadable and therefore unusable. The ability to convert filesis also useful, especially for sharing data with business associates whomay be using a different application.

You will find many new CAD applications at friendly prices. Those threeissues-usable operating system, menu configuration and filecompatibility-should be taken into account when reviewing them for purchaseand use. If the publisher has a demo version available, try it beforebefore you buy. If you can buy it from the publisher with a money-backtrial, so much the better.

These CAD applications, including AutoCAD LT, have list prices ranging from$900 to $350: AutoCAD LT, MiniCAD from Diehl Graphsoft, DynaCADD from DitekSoftware, Fast CAD 32 from Evolution Computing, FelixCAD from FCAD,Imagineer Technical from Intergraph, TurboCAD from IMSI, Vdraft fromSoftsource, and IntelliCAD from Visio. Street prices will be less,depending on where you purchase it. Many publishers offer competitiveupgrade prices; if you own a competing product, you will be offered theapplication at an upgrade price. Further, if you work in the academicfield, you may be eligible for an academic price.

The Internet is a good place to start; it is rapidly becoming the onlyplace to go. Egghead Software, for example, has closed its chain of retailstores in favor of using the Internet for all its marketing efforts.

System design toolsThe design tools' options facing the systems contractor are many. SmaartPro, licensed by JBL Professional, and SpectraLAB, developed by SoundTechnology, are two excellent examples of using the computer as the basisfor design tools. Smaart Pro is divided into two sections-real time andanalysis. The real-time section is for use with a measuring mic, and theanalysis section is to be used with a WAV file. Lectrosonics has a group ofapplications including PAG/NAG equations in a pictorial format, and theyare available at http://www.lectro.com under "Tech Info" and the "ProductLines/LecNet". The best of all worlds is the TDS (time delay spectrometry)principle, licensed to Crown International, developer of the first systemand now sold by TEF Products, a division of Gold Line. The system connectsto your computer. Not far behind is Iasys from AudioControl Industrial,which uses the TDS principle. The system is computer based, but it isentirely self contained.

Document import/export problemsDocument import/export problems, however, are not as simple of a matter.They can exist even within Microsoft Word operating on separatecomputers-20 different file formats are available in that program alone.This remains the case because there are many so word processingapplications that are or have been on the market. Change to a laterapplication comes slowly, although a given application may be out of datebecause of the same reason that the QWERTY keyboard is such a standard.Change is unnecessary when a current application meets a user'srequirements.

CAD is a somewhat different story. AutoSketch will export a file usingAutoCAD's DWG format, allowing importation into AutoCAD or AutoCAD Lite. Itwill not import a DWG file for additional work, and AutoCAD Lite willimport and export a DWG file. You will also find that manufacturers of rackcabinets and similar devices are offering drawing files for theirequipment, usually in DWG format. With a strictly in-house CAD application,you will not have much of a document import/export problem. If you areinterfacing with the outside world, however, then standards, even de facto,are of concern.

In this short space, I have not begun to touch on every topic concerningthe computer. Technology will continue to march steadily onward, leaving aheap of new products in its wake. It will fall upon your shoulders to siftthrough this pile and pick out those products that will inevitably provevaluable to the operation of your business. Before you set upon that task,however, make sure you have done your research.

Get on the Web! That is what most business people are hearing over and overagain, but if you own or work in a small business, you might be wonderingjust how useful the Internet and a Web site would be. The U.S. Chamber ofCommerce Small Business Survey for 1998 indicates that 67% of smallbusinesses have Web access, and 70% of them have four or fewer workers. Inthis way, the Web allows the little guy to have as much impact as thebigger guys. According to the data, the strongest areas for companies withWeb sites are in answering questions for customers (63%) and findingpotential customers and suppliers (49%). Placing orders (37%), conveyingproduct information (30%) and receiving orders (29%) fall in right behind.

In this busy working world, there is little enough time for your customersto travel around and investigate options when it comes to the choicesavailable in the A-V marketplace. With the Web, not only do your potentialcustomers have the ability to ponder the options in privacy, but they canalso do it away from high-pressure situations. Once a given product orservice is located, a customer will want to visit the site run by thecompany to determine where it is available in his area. As a time saver,the Web is ideal because a user can browse at his leisure without becomingoverwhelmed by the information. The tenor of your Web presentation shouldbe designed to leave your potential customer with a feeling of confidenceabout what you are doing-it is all in the way the information is presented.

When designing your Web site, there are a few things to keep in mind. Themost frequent mistake with Web-site development is cluttering with too manygraphics, thereby slowing the download speed of information from the site.The more you place on your opening screen, the slower it will load. Avoidthese mistakes by browsing other similar sites for ideas. Hiring aconsultant to work on your Web design is not a bad idea either, providedthe person or firm you choose comes with good references. The key here isas true as it is in any business venture-you get what you pay for. Thereare many people marketing themselves as Web designers and charging aslittle as $100 for a start-up site. Be careful not to throw your moneyaway. Always check out the Web sites that your consultant did for otherclients, and ask those clients how happy they are with the work.

Creating your own Web site is also an option. There are many good softwarepackages out there to get you started, although for most, there will be alearning curve. Many companies prefer to leave the nuts and bolts to aprofessional and worry about the content.

Another issue comes with the domain name for your site. It is always betterto register a domain name with the InterNIC (a company that establishesyour exclusive right to your own name) so your customers will remember yourname more easily. Your own domain name gives you more credibility, and itavoids longer access addresses that could thwart and confuse people.

Additionally, I cannot sufficiently stress the importance of linking yoursite to related industry sites. Linking your site with affiliated tradeorganizations, vendors, suppliers, satisfied customers, publications, othercomplementary contractors, installers or designers and A-V news groups isvital for fresh contacts. Appearing on the best-known search engines, suchas Yahoo!, is also critical. It is relatively easy to establish contactwith other sites, but you must get permission to attach to them. Developingthese strings is where a consultant is worth his or her weight in goldbecause without traffic, no one knows you are there.

You may wonder if having a Web site at this particular time makes sense. Itis important to understand the reach of the information you post. Neverbefore has there been a medium where so many people have had access to somuch information so quickly. When you put up a site, you are showing yourbest face to the world. If someone sees something they like about what itis you do, they will contact you about it. This is especially true forthose who design and implement systems in our industry, and there havealready been many success stories.

It is no coincidence that the top six states in the United States for Webbuyers-CA, NY, TX, MA, FL and NJ-are among the most expensive states withinwhich to own a home. The profile of an average Web buyer is acollege-educated individual with disposable income. This certainly bodeswell for the home A-V installation market because if your companyspecializes in that area, you now have a potentially unlimited audience inthe home. Many predict that business-to-business contact on the Web will bethe largest growth area. That means that all your commercial customers willbe looking for you when they do their research on installation specs.

There are also no boundaries for the Web researcher. A church in Oregoncould hire a firm in Wisconsin to install a new videowall and soundreinforcement system with a California firm designing the rigging allbecause of mutual access to the Web. True, the goods and services of ourindustry do not readily lend themselves to sales on the Web in the same waythat music, books and information do, but this is rapidly changing, and thepredictions for Web use in commerce are through the roof. According toYankee Group, a marketing research group in Boston, 33 million homes willbe connected by the end of next year, bringing the number of peopleconsidered users up to 96 million (according toIDC of Framingham, MA).

Security on the Web for e-commerce is rapidly becoming a non-issue as well.There are inexpensive software packages available now to take care of thisarea, and when you think about it, virtually every business that now offerscredit is already on line for approvals via some sort of service. Thecredit net is one of the oldest networks around, next to the military net,of course. It may interest some readers to know that both the Mil-net andMasterCard-net were housed in the same building for years before theInternet got its start.

The Web really is a benefit for our highly focused industry. The value ofinformation gathering, marketing products, printing cost savings, customerservice and further development of sales feature benefits that Web accessaffords a business in our industry is immeasurable. In fact, it is the verynature of our niche-oriented industry that makes us even more suitable forWeb marketing. After all, there is nowhere else a person who has nofamiliarity with audio and video can go for information these days.

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