Tax Preparer. (evaluation) Susan Glinert-Cole.
Tax Preparer, by HowardSoft (for the serious personal computer user) is put up in the lushest, softest, leatheriest-look, gold-stamped binder that it fairly exudes an odour of money, executive three-piece suits, and expensive after-shave lotion. One might expect such a dignified package to have a dignified human interface, and it certainly does. As a matter of fact, it is so dignified, it is downright ponderous. Written in interpreted Basic, its speed projects an image usually associated with ancient Chinese Imperial processions. I found I could do the arithmetic calculations faster than Tax Preparer with a hand-held calculator and a plebian pencil.
The documentation is very good, thorough, and beautifully printed on weighty ecru paper in grave, dark grey ink. There are sections describing the road map for tax preparation, form-by-form hints, preparing the return and generating printouts (including the IRS specifications for these). Tax Preparer is kept updated for the current tax year; the updates costs about $25. Several pin feed 1040 forms are included in the back of the manual and the suppliers of these forms are mentioned in the text.
The program requires a data disk, and will not accept path names for files. This reduced my carefully prepared, hierarchical hard disk directory to a root-volume shambles, and I eventually gave in and used the floppy drives--program disk in A: and data disk in B:. The recommended memory is 96K, although the program can be run in 64K if you can bear to wait around while it "refreshes" itself.
There are several menus in the program for selecting the various options: default program settings, retrieving old files, and choosing one of the 22 different tax forms to work with. Every choice is accompanied by a low, solemn noise that evokes a mood of introspection regarding the validity of the figure just entered. I filled out most of my 1982 return with it, and the program agreed with my own calculations (which relieved me no end). The package has been carefully prepared to take into account the complexity of the whole tax-paying process, and I certainly found it easy to use.
The professional tax preparer will find it simple to manipulate many different client files. The manual provides suggestions for managing the data disks, and the file manager section of Tax Preparer is menu-driven and provides meaningful prompts.
HowardSoft has left no stone unturned to offer helpful information about every aspect of taxes that I could think of (which admittedly is not all that extensive). The biggest problem with the program is its incredible slowness, and, while I have to admire the authors of a 20,000-line Basic program, I am really amazed that they didn't bother to compile it. This would help the performance immensely. Professional tax people in particular might find the response of this package extremely trying in the course of a working day. Announcements
As the leaves fall off the trees, so do new product announcements rain down on the heads of the unwary public. IBM has been particularly prolific this month--high- and low-end hardware made an appearance. Want a mainframe computer on your desktop next to your abacus? Buy the new PC XT/370 and get three computers in one. This computer is really an upgrade of the XT; in fact, the purchase of three boards will let you convert your little personal computer into a maxi-micro (micro-maxi? mini-micro? mega-micro?, nano-maxi?).
The XT/370 begins with the XT and the three new boards convert the unit into an IBM 370 emulator for software developers, a 370 terminal and an XT. One board is an interface for linking the XT to its big brother; one is a half-megabyte memory board; and the third is an emulator board with three custom-designed chips: an 8087 and two 68000's. One 68000 contains the code for about 25 actual 370 instructions, and the second emulates the remainder of the 370 instruction set (except for 15 I/O-related instructions). A systems developer can write and debug a 370 program in the emulator mode, shift to terminal mode to download the program into the batch file queue and then switch to the XT mode for a quick round of Cosmic Crusaders while waiting for the 370 to disgorge the printout.
IBM also announced the 3270 Personal Computer. It is kind of a cross between a PC, a 3270 terminal, and a Lisa. Designed for the executive type, it can display up to seven varicolored windows each dealing with a separate application. Up to four windows can be running mainframe programs; two of them can be used as electronic notepads; one window can be enlarged and reduced at the touch of a few keys. At the same time you are writing yourself little notes, you can be checking the database for nearby ice cream stores, having a meaningful exchange with an IBM 4300, and playing Cosmic Crusaders.
The 3270 has a beautiful new display with a tilt-swivel pedestal, very high resolution, and eight mouth-watering colors. It reminded me of a multi-colored Lisa except, of course, that the application programs are not necessarily integrated, and there was no garbage-can icon on the display. I read today that some company announced a development program that will allow up to 255 simultaneous windows on one screen. It is interesting to speculate bout a windowing computer like the 3270, running windowing application programs. Just imagine--900 windows on a 13" display . . . surely a sight to gladden the heart of even the crustiest S-100 user.
The keyboard is certainly impressive; it was designed to be equally familiar to both PC and 3270 terminal users and has plenty of keys for controlling the windows. Surprisingly, there is no mouse skittering alongside the 3270 to help manage the windows. I assume that someone will quickly remedy this situation. What's a window without a mouse, right?
(I admit that I am not crazy about mice in general. People who develop rodent-based software presuppose an end-user with one square foot of empty desk space. Although I usually tidy the desk up at night, by morning a choice selection of computery weed-like stuff has sprouted around the keyboard. A friend of mine solves the space problem by running the mouse up and down his leg. I pointed out the impact this behavior might have on a nylon stocking and he reluctantly agreed that his solution would have repercussions in any number of EEOC offices around the country. Mice also require a certain fine-tuned coordination and are definitely out for the marathon programmer with caffeine-palsied hands.)
Also announced by IBM were the PC Color Printer, priced at $1995, and the PC Compact Printer, priced at $175. The Color Printer can print up to eight colors at speeds up to 200 characters a second, and like the Compact Printer, can accomodate single sheet, fanfold, and continuous roll paper. The Long-Awaited PC Jr.
On the low-end of the IBM family we have, of course, the PC Jr. (at last, at last). I admit to being slightly puzzled by it; it reminds me of an Atari 800 with an Apple IIe price tag. It has a cute little system unit and a separate battery-powered keyboard that communicates with the main unit via an infrared link, allowing you to move the keyboard up to 20 feet away. This is useful for eye tests. A separate transformer box sits on the desk next to the system unit.
The system unit has two cartridge slots and comes with 64K, expandable to 128K. The microprocessor is (surprise!) an 8088. There is a serial port, game controller, light pen interface, good old cassette Basic, and color graphics capability built into the system unit. The built-in display adapter works with any video, but can display only 40 columns on the screen.
IBM appears to have directed the Jr. to the educational market. Plenty of game cartridges and educational programs are being offered. The classroom environment requires all keyboards to be cabled; the infrared link gets confused if there is more than one PC Jr. (or video recorder) in the room.
Like the original PC, everything is an option. The operating system is one even I didn't foresee: PC-DOS 2.1; it is compatible with the PC and XT. For 80-column buffs, a memory/display expansion board is available, and the expanded model can take an optional thin-line 360K disk drive. Likewise, a host of other doodads, some of which, like the connector for the TV, should really have been included because you can't run the thing without them. An internal modem, thermal printer, joystick, and color printer are available to fluff up the basic system.
The pricing is shown in Table 1.
An absolutely stripped-down system costs $719; the more flexible and expensive version with disk drive, advanced Basic, and a cheapo 80-column monitor (say $100) runs the price up to $1529. This is softly grazing the PC Sr. price range. Jr. can run most of the entertainment software already available, but development software, like compilers, is a problem in a 128K environment.
The question, I suppose, is whether parents want to invest this kind of money to teach a kid Basic and foster alien slaughter, when many computers with similar (but less sophisticated) potential can be had for much less. Because of software compatibility between Jr. and Sr., I expect many people to ignore the game cartridges and educational programs and view the new offering as a low-cost alternative to the PC. One thing Jr. will probably do is force down the price of the Apple IIe. Any price reductions are great for the consumer, but one is left wondering how much money will be left over for research and development of the next generation of the personal computer.
Creative Computing will feature a review of the PC Jr. next month. Networks
In addition to the maxi-micros, new networks are being announced on a bi-hourly basis. I have had my hands on several the past few months, and most suffer from two large problems: a lack of multi-user application programs and true file and record locking. The lack of file locking is a serious one. Suppose you have opened a file on a shared hard disk and are writing some information in there. Another user has the same idea, and while you are busy updating the file with the latest statistics, the screen suddenly clears of your entered data and shows the data just entered by user number 2.
Many network companies offer a clumsy protection mechanism called file locking. Before you open a file, you issue a LOCK (filename) command. Let's call the file STATS. The shared disk server updates a table to reflect that file STATS is now locked. The second user comes along and wants to open STATS. So he issues the LOCK STATS command, and the disk server politely informs him that STATS is in use; the server will continue to parry requests until the first user issues an UNLOCK command. However, if the second user comes along and just opens STATS without giving a LOCK command first, the disk server obediently keeps its nose out of everything and the end result is two people inside the same file simultaneously.
The LOCK approach assumes that everyone using the network is friendly to the system, that is, prior to using any shared, writeable file, a LOCK command will be issued, and an UNLOCK command will be given when the user is finished with the file. Should a user forget about locking the file, or just ignore the whole business as an extra pain-in-the-neck, the network software is powerless to prevent a disaster.
File and record locking can be built into application programs should the network not provide this facility, but here we run into the second problem--there are very few application programs for the IBM PC that are designed to run in any environment other than a single-user one. Lotus 1-2-3 cannot discriminate between separate users (yet) and so has no control over file locking either; it is designed to service only one user and can't know about a network environment.
There is a third problem pertaining to networks that is not terribly visible right now, because people don't fully realize the potential value of a network to their organization. Networks are presently viewed as a means to share expensive equipment (hard disks, letter-quality printers) and large databases. What hasn't yet crept into the office is the concept of the customized network, one that will present a particular network application and environment to sales, another to production, a third to accounting, and yet another to customer service. Right now, everyone is just putting single-user programs onto a shared disk and calling that networking. It is, in a limited way, but there are unplumbed depths to the entire concept that have not begun to be addressed.
There are two networks on the market right now (one of which was announced recently) that have pinpointed these problems and are designed to be flexible and secure.
The two have very different philosophies, but both are elegant implementations.
Novell's Sharenet uses an IBM XT or PC with a fixed disk as a dedicated file server. The server runs its own operating system called Netware, which allows several very interesting things to go on in the network environment. First, any computer using any operating system can potentially be a member of a Sharenet system. When a user station boots Sharenet software, a shell is loaded around the local operating system. The function of the shell is to act as a translator from the user station to the file server. All that is required is a selection of appropriate shells; they are currently available for CPM/86 and PC-DOS 1.1 and 2.0, and Novell is planning to offer more.
Second, because Netware was designed as a multi-user operating system (PC-DOS was not, don't forget), all the appropriate file and record locking is built into the system. Most networks use a disk server concept, that is, a shared hard disk which can be accessed by multiple users. When a user needs something from the shared hard disk, he taps the disk server on the shoulder to prepare it for a little action, but the user station does all the physical file openings and closings. Not so in Sharenet. A user transmits a request to the file server and the file server does the actual file manipulations. This control prevents the messy multiple-writer programs of most other networks.
Novell is presently addressing the problem of application software designed to run in the Sharenet environment. If the utilities that come with Sharenet are any indication, the application packages will be extremely well done. Sharenet also includes a multi-user multi-addictive game on their network, called Snipes. They tell me it is available as a stand-aloen for the PC. If it arrives, you will hear more about it.
SofTech Microsystems has announced its network software, Liaison, which also answers all the above problems, but in a different way. The set of software includes the UCSD p-System operating environment, disk and print server software, application packages, and a set of development tools for designing customized distributed software packages. Liaison is an open system: the architecture is fully documented, and software developers are encouraged to use this information, as well as support from Softech, to write application software.
Any computer that runs the p-System already can upgrade to Liaison which, by the way, incorporates the upgraded UCSD p-System version IV.2. Five application packages are currently available: word processor, spreadsheet, executive calendar, query database manager, and electronic mail. They are designed specifically for the multi-user environment and incorporate genuine file and record locking.
The spiffy enhancements are non-rodent, multi-colored windowing capabilities and an on-line help facility, as well as a standard user interface for all the software. The development tools package is potentially the most interesting offering. With it, a developer can customize a network to a particular situation. SofTech's demonstration at their press conference showed an in-house system for routing and handling customer service calls to the appropriate people, who can then draw on several databases for client history and problem resolution. I thought it was neat. Liaison is unique in a world rife with humdrum shared hard disks and electronic message packages. Random Notes
Loathe to have IBM owners miss out on a good thing, Micro Fun has released their game Miner 2049er for the PC. The miner hero must climb through ten screens of a uranium mine in an effort to reach the surface. Needless to say, various difficulties present themselves during the climb, including mutants, holes in the gridwork and an ever-ticking clock. I haven't seen the game myself, but the gamevine says it is challenging and addictive.
The PC Users' Group of Colorado, nee the Denver Users' Group meets the last Thursday of every month, except November, in the Capital Federal Savings Building, 1913 Broadway, Boulder, CO. For more information, contact: Howard Weissmann, President, PC Users' Group of Colorado, P.O. Box 944, Boulder, CO 80306. (303) 443-5528 (evenings).
Products: Tax Preparer (Computer program)