by Wayne M. Krakau - Chicago Computer Guide, April 1997


Due to popular demand, this column is devoted to following up on topics I originally covered in previous columns. I am constantly bombarded with "whatever happened to" type of questions regarding my old articles, so I thought that I should reply to them in print.

The Shoemaker’s Children Go Barefoot
After all of the carping I did in my series of columns cautioning people about the potential hazards of vertical market software, you would think I would know better than to get caught in the very trap that I described.
After years of creating quotes using what I refer to as "My Giant Spreadsheet From Hell," I purchased special quoting software specifically marketed as the salvation of companies that sell computer hardware, software, and related services. The software is Windows-based, and is allegedly (rampant O.J.-ism) capable of importing data supplied by many major computer product distributors. That data, along with manually entered information on products and services not already available in computer format, provides the base information for quoting.
My initial experience with this software was quite unpleasant. After numerous attempts, while using the documentation, I finally had to call tech support just to get it installed properly. After we finally got it installed, the technician admitted that the information I needed was not in the manual, in a README file, or on their Web site.
Once the product was installed, I assumed it would work as it did in its reviews - WRONG! It constantly blew up, taking the whole system with it. When it wasn’t locking up my system, it was taking a ridiculously long time to import the distributors’ data. After it took 22 hours to get 7% of one distributor’s data imported, tech support finally told me to download a new, experimental patch for the program. That patch fixed the import problem. The program imported all of the data in just a couple of hours.
Now, I had a working program, but its usefulness was in doubt. It was written in FoxPro for Windows. While I have read in reviews that FoxPro can create true Windows programs, I haven’t seen one. This quoting program, and all of the other FoxPro for Windows programs that I have encountered run in Windows, but use a unique and proprietary interface which only vaguely resembles a real Windows program. The mouse clicks, keystrokes, shortcuts, and even the scroll bars, work in their own bizarre non-Windows-like way. Even the fonts are proprietary and limited in their sizes. The program can’t even use standard Windows fonts! (One of my customers purchased a FoxPro-based program which can’t even be used with Microsoft’s own video drivers!)
After wasting thousands of dollars of my time installing, debugging, and attempting to use this software, I finally gave up and went back to my spreadsheet. That’s what I get for not following my own advice. (Note that mentioning this products name will not help any of my clients or prospective clients, but will help my competition. I’ve provided more than enough information for them to figure it out for themselves.)
Windows 0.95
I got a mixed reaction to my comments about this operating system. Some people told me about their successes with Windows 95 and were offended that I considered it an immature product (as in "0.95" being the product prior to version 1.00). Some even suggested that I might simply be a bit dim (a distinct possibility!), since I had so much trouble with Windows 95. Of course, they obviously forgot to read the part of the article that mentioned that in each case where I even thought I might be out of my depth, I immediately called in experienced, Microsoft-certified personnel - who subsequently also had lots of problems.
Many more told me of problems just as bad as mine. Since I frequently write about computer problems, I suspect that I attract horror stories, so I wouldn’t apply much statistical validity to these results. Just be aware that I am not the only one having problems with Windows 95.
Some of my clients are doing limited installations of Windows 95. Where possible, they are limiting their efforts (as per my advice) to new computers loaded with all Windows 95 specific software to reduce their risk. Even within those limitations, it can still be a challenge.
I have discovered that the same software companies that heavily advertise the new features added to the Windows 95 versions of their products, neglect to be so forthcoming with the news that they have removed old and trusted features from these same products, ostensibly due to the difficulty in implementing these features in Windows 95. You only get the nasty surprise that the features are missing after looking in vain for them in the product and its associated documentation, and finally calling tech support for help.
For example, STAC electronics has removed the outbound calling capability from the Host-Only version of their Reachout remote control software. Also, Artisoft removed the UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) interface software from the Windows 95 version of LANtastic.
One of the problems with DOS and Windows 3.x was that, due to limitations in the products and their documentation, software companies regularly wrote programs that violated Microsoft’s rules (including Microsoft’s own applications programs). A computer system would then act strange or even lock up because of these transgressions. Windows 95 was supposed to fix that. It includes many features which previously had to be manually created by software companies, has much more extensive and higher quality documentation, and Microsoft has stated that they are willing to withhold certification from software that doesn’t follow the rules.
Despite these efforts, nonstandard, rule-breaking programming techniques have become common. While these won’t necessarily be unsafe, in that they will disable your system, there are potential complications. For instance, Artisoft added a modem sharing feature to their LANtastic for Windows 95 product. To do this, they added multiple, nonstandard communications port definitions to the Windows 95 registry. This causes warning messages that claim that the system timer and the DMA (Direct Memory Access) controller of your motherboard are malfunctioning due to conflicts with some of these bogus COM ports.
If you try to remedy the situation by deleting the fake COM ports, everything goes back to normal - or so it seems. In reality, deleting these fake devices corrupts the registry so badly that Windows 95 must be reloaded. Of course, the fact that the conflict warning messages are really false alarms is not documented. You have to call tech support to find out what is really happening.
An additional complication is the existence of OEM Release B of Windows 95. Every new computer bundled with Windows 95 since around late 1996 has this version. The catch is that none of the software companies I have talked to have tested their products with this version. Even STAC, which is partially owned by Microsoft, hasn’t tested with OEM Release B. Luckily, most software that works with earlier versions of Windows 95 work with this version, but I have already started finding exceptions. These exceptions are gradually being fixed, but it means that you could be a beta tester without even knowing it.
Next month I will continue following up with past topics. I need to mention that I didn’t want to pick on either STAC or Artisoft in this article. They are just the most prominent and recognizable examples that I could find for the type of difficulties mentioned. Their respective technical support departments were helpful, cooperative, and, considering the type of problems encountered, appropriately apologetic.

�1997, Wayne M. Krakau