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ATPM 3.03
March 1997



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The Personal Computing Paradigm

by Michael Tsai,

A Week Without Those “Staccato Signals”

Just after ATPM 3.02 was mailed out to all of our subscribers, I went on a one-week vacation. A vacation away from my Mac — a real vacation — you might say. It was probably the first time in several months that my Mac was "off" for more than 48 consecutive hours. I had mixed feelings about leaving ATPM, my Mac, my life on the internet, and computing in general. All of the above are huge parts of my life and my daily routine. I suspected that my days might feel empty without them; but, as much as I love the Macintosh experience, I thought it really would be good to get away from it for awhile. Finally, I thought, "Maybe it will make me see technology in a different way, from the point of view of Wintel users and the people who are a little bit scared of the 'information age.'" As it turns out, my return to Macintosh computing was far more educational than was my absence from it.

In the past, I've had rather bad luck with leaving my Mac. At least twice, I've returned to find that there was a serious problem with my hard disk (leading, of course, to data loss). This always surprised me, not only because I always take good care of my Mac, but because it had been left off. What could possibly have happened? So, this time, I took precautions. I ran all the partitions of my hard disk through MacTools Pro and Norton Utilities; I checked the integrity of the media with Hard Disk Toolkit; I zapped the PRAM and rebuilt the desktop files with TechTool; I optimized all the partitions; and I backed everything up to DAT. As a final thought, I unplugged the whole system. There isn't much lightning during February in New Hampshire, but you can never be too careful.

My trip was uneventful. At the airport I saw quite a few people who'd brought their notebook computers with them. Some were trying to get work done, but it seemed that a majority were using their color LCD's for Solitaire. They were all PC notebooks — made by NEC, Compaq, and IBM, but not by Apple. In the W. H. Smith newsstands, there were walls full of PC publications, but only three Mac ones: MacWorld, MacUser, and MacAddict.

I wasn't really surprised by how many PC notebooks there were. After all, the Mac platform has a single digit market share, and only recently introduced a decent PowerBook. However, the total lack of a Mac presence (outside of the magazines at the newsstands) did surprise me. I live in a predominantly Mac community, and in the past, I've almost always seen a few PowerBooks at the airport. Where were they? There weren't even any Newton's. It's no wonder that the general public thinks Apple is dead.

A few days later, I saw Apple's new multi-page ad in the Wall Street Journal — the "We're Back" ad with pictures of the new PowerBook 3400, the new towers, the MessagePad 2000, and the new QuickTake camera. Compared to other Apple ads, this one was great; but I began to wonder if Apple actually expected it to raise sales. There weren't many statistics on the ad — no indication of how fast the towers were — and there weren't any prices. What are readers to think when an ad such as this one appears in a publication that rarely has good things to say about Apple, and appears unaccompannied by facts? Pretending for a moment that I hadn't read all about these new products in MacWeek and on the web, I tried to think of what a normal business person reading the paper would think of the ad. I don't think it would make him any more inclined to buy a Mac over a PC, especially since there was a story in that day's issue about Apple's impending demise. "Feel good" ads are nice, but they only work

Throughout the week away from my Mac, I didn't pay much attention to the news. At first, I thought that this might have been because I was lazy — too used to having it mailed right to me. But I realized that I was completely sick of the bombardment of news stories from the media. To quote Paul Simon, getting away from the "staccato signals of constant information" was an important part of being on vacation. While I (perhaps) regretted hearing the latest Mac news and bug fixes the day they were released, I felt liberated that I didn't have to (actually, couldn't) constantly check the news web sites for fear of falling behind the times. [Readers of last month's Page o' Links will recall the listing of Mac news sites.] When I returned home, I stubbornly tried to find all the news articles posted while I was on vacation, but most were archived in the "Old News" sections! I never realized that I'd come to think of two-day-old news as "old."

I arrived home at about 10:00 PM. Everything was as I'd left it. With anticipation, I depressed the power key of my Mac. Nothing happened. For a split second, I was surprised, but then I remembered it was unplugged. I plugged in the power strip and turned on the system. When I heard the guitar chime, I started unpacking my suitcase. Meanwhile, the computer started up and began to download the e-mail and newsgroup messages that accumulated during my absence. An hour later, it was still downloading. A few months ago, I stated that e-mail had all the advantages of an answering machine. However, an answering machine runs out of tape after a while. My mail server didn't, and I had several hundred messages waiting for me, despite the fact that I'd told almost everyone that I'd be out of town and away from e-mail.

Sometimes there were three or four messages from the sender with the same subject. It turns out that they were copies of the same messages. You see, people thought that since I hadn't responded, the message hadn't arrived. Some had PS's to the effect of, "I sent this to you yesterday, but you didn't respond so I figured you didn't get it." E-mail is like an answering machine, all right. Messages pile up, and up, and up.

It took a few hours to read and respond to all the mail. After it was all done, I resolved that I would no longer be even the slightest bit annoyed when people didn't reply to my messages immediately. I still respond (when appropriate) to every message I receive. Some really popular columnists don't, and after experiencing an avalanche of e-mail firsthand, I can certainly understand their reasoning. For now, reading my e-mail is a manageable, albeit time-consuming process. As long as I check it daily, it doesn't get overwhelming, and I can take pride in answering all my mail in a timely fashion.

Technology was supposed to be a great liberator and in many ways, it has been. Something like ATPM would not be possible were it not for e-mail. People are communicating more now than ever, but they're also spending more of their time writing and responding to e-mails. An amazing amount of time is spent simply getting technology to work. While I was away from my Mac, I missed being in contact with people and I missed reading news minutes after it happened. What I didn't miss was the overload that comes through my modem in "staccato signals of constant information."

[apple graphic] "The Personal Computing Paradigm" is ©1997 by Michael Tsai,

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