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New Products Not Always Better

Richard O'Reilly designs microcomputer applications for The Times.

Offering a new, improved version of a familiar product is common in everything from breakfast cereals to television serials. And computer products. Sometimes the results are good, sometimes not so good.

Polaroid has recently jumped into the floppy diskette business, putting its brand on disks made for it by PerfectData of Chatsworth. To distinguish its disks from everyone else’s, Polaroid is using something called the Disk Recovery Service.

To kick off its new product, Polaroid sent writers a “mess kit” designed to put its recovery service to the test. The kit consisted of individual serving pouches of jams, syrups, salad dressings, ketchup, mustard, tea and hot cocoa.

I dutifully filled the two sample disks with programs and data and then called in some expert help, a colleague’s 6-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter, to smear the disks with assorted goop.

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I set the disks aside for a week to dry, congeal, get moldy or whatever, and then mailed them off to Polaroid in the box provided. Five days later I received fresh, clean diskettes with all my programs and data in perfect working order. The only cost had been the postage to Polaroid. There is no charge for the recovery service, and Polaroid pays the freight back.

There is a cost, however, and it comes as a higher price to buy the diskettes. Although the list price for a box of standard 5-inch IBM-compatible disks is $49.95, the same as for premium brand Dysan disks, you won’t find Polaroid disks discounted as much. The wholesale price is higher, about $5 to $6 higher per 10-diskette box in quantities of 100 boxes, according to Steve Baer, president of Daisy Wheel Ribbon Co., a Los Angeles computer supply outlet.

Little Demand

As a result, Baer says there is little demand among his customers for Polaroid’s disks despite the well-advertised recovery service.

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Polaroid says its recovery service is being sent 10 diskettes a week from customers. In most cases, they did not have obvious physical damage, but users were simply unable to get access to their data.

I don’t know whether the Polaroid-PerfectData disks are any better than other brands, or even how to tell whether one brand is better than another.

I can tell you that, of the several hundred disks of various brands and types that I have handled over the last four years, two have been defective out of the box (both Maxells) and were promptly replaced by the dealer. A couple of others (the brand names of which I don’t recall) have gotten scrambled in use and had to be reformatted. The rest have been trouble-free.

Another new version of an existing product comes from Xerox, which has introduced its own model of the Olivetti-built IBM-compatible PC that AT&T; has been marketing for about a year.

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The computer itself is lovely. Xerox does it in pale mauve tones, and it has the same powerful and complete circuitry as the AT&T; version--a microprocessor that’s faster than the IBM PC’s, seven empty expansion slots and a serial and parallel port for connecting a printer and a modem.

Had it been content with that package, Xerox would have had a dandy product. Unfortunately, somebody decided that the company should improve on the standard version of MS-DOS, the computer’s operating system.

An operating system is like a hotel manager, largely invisible and dedicated to making everything inside the machine do its appointed task at the appropriate moment. What Xerox did to MS-DOS is equivalent to moving the hotel manager’s office into the middle of the lobby and expanding its size so that it takes up nearly the entire lobby.

Instead of the familiar “A” prompt on your screen and the need to memorize a handful of simple commands such as “DIR,” “COPY,” “ERASE” and “FORMAT,” Xerox’s “Screenmate” takes over the whole screen, breaking it into a group of confusing windows, all shouting foreign-looking computer words at you.

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You then use the 10 function keys to execute various DOS commands, with a menu showing you what each key does at any given moment. You really need a menu because it usually takes several keys pressed in sequence to complete a command, with the definitions of each key changing as you go. It’s confusing to describe and even more confusing to use.

The simple act of seeing a directory of your files may require pressing function keys several times as you follow the path to get where you want. Some commands are slow to execute even after you’ve pressed the proper keys. Formatting a new disk, for instance, took noticeably longer than with standard MS-DOS.

Once before the people at Xerox tried to get clever. That was about three years ago when they brought out a computer bundled with a special version of WordStar that was supposed to be much easier to use. Most users found it cumbersome, however, and Xerox abandoned it in favor of the standard version.

Update of Old Product Is an Improvement

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I hope Screenmate meets the same fate--and quickly. If you want a nice Olivetti PC, buy an AT&T.; If your interior decorating scheme dictates a mauve computer, however, wait six months and see whether Xerox will give up on Screenmate and switch to standard MS-DOS.

Sometimes updating an old product is an improvement, so I’ve saved the best news for last--unequivocal praise for a new edition of a book with an awful title.

It’s called “The PC-SIG Library.” It should be called “Fabulous Guide to (Almost) Free Software.” PC-SIG stands for PC Software Interest Group, which maintains a library of 306 diskettes containing thousands of programs that run on IBM PCs, compatibles and PCjrs.

The disks are available by mail at $6 each and contain everything from games and minor utility programs to fully developed word-processing, spreadsheet, database and financial management programs.

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The $8.95 book describes the most popular programs in a manner easily understood by beginners and lists all programs available, by subject, by name and by disk. This May, 1985, edition of the book is supposed to be available at most major bookstores or can be ordered direct from PC-SIG at 1030 E. Duane Ave., Suite J, Sunnyvale, Calif. 94086 (or phone 408-730-9261).

The authors of some of the programs ask for a donation--ranging between $10 and $75 depending on the program--if you find their work useful. It’s strictly voluntary, but you get author support in using the program, and a more elaborate version in some cases, if you pay.

You need a fast dot-matrix printer if you plan to collect these programs because the manuals are simply text files on the disks. Some of them are more than 100 pages, and a slow letter-quality printer won’t be very helpful.

The money you save by not buying commercial software will easily pay the cost of a dot-matrix printer, however.

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The Computer File welcomes readers’ comments but regrets that the authors cannot respond individually to letters. Write to Richard O’Reilly, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.


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