IBM images. (column) Will Fastie.
Having just finished Christmas and the New Year, I must say I enjoyed my holiday. I'm tired but relaxed. I received no toys for Christmas.
I had a birthday, too. No, I'm not going to tell you how old I am. I'm afraid my older readers would think I'm too young to know what I'm talking about, and my younger readers would think I'm too old to know what I'm talking about. I got one toy for my birthday, Pitfall for the Atari VCS. My son Josh bought it for me (I think). I haven't yet figured out how to plug it into the PC. Works fine on the VCS, though.
Last month I said I would consider working up the Basic interface to BIOS depending upon my state of mind through the holiday. My state of mind was not the best: Trudeau went into hibernation for a couple of years so no more "Doonesbury,' and I was redecorating (a mild term to describe the work I did) the bathroom. I know that's all I need to say to gain your full sympathy.
As part of my regular job I follow technology. That has not taken me to Comdex shows before, because I don't work for an "ISO,' or Independent Sales Organization, the stated audience for all Comdex shows. This year, however, I expected considerable action in this arena and thought I might learn something of value for the company. Since I was there anyway, I assigned 10% of one eyeball to the IBM PC.
My expectation was accurate: the biggest Comdex ever--the exhibit area filled the cavernous Las Vegas Convention Center. In my two days on the floor, I was not able even to pass every booth, much less stop and chat. I think there were over 1000 exhibitors. I'll invest a week next year.
I thought there were three major areas of interest at the show from a purely general point of view. First, there were disk drive manufacturers all over the place. Most of the names were familiar, but there were some newcomers too. This business is really hot, but I think there has to be some fallout soon. Most of the booths seemed pretty dull, with little new or exciting, but with salespeople touting this increased capacity or that recording improvement.
I found the SyQuest booth the one exception (see my article in this issue). Second, the printer business looks like it is heating up. I was particularly impressed by Mannesman-Tally's model 160 printer, that firm's first entry at the low end. There were letter quality printers galore.
One product that excited me was the Datamarc 3000 single sheet feeder which costs about $1200, the least expensive I have ever seen. The unit appeared reliable and efficient, with features not available on any feeder I have examined. Finally, the number of software exhibitors was staggering. The big software attractions were the so-called "integrated' packages.
The biggest crowds were at software exhibits. There were many very interesting products, but the crowds seemed to converge on VisiCorp, MicroPro, and Ashton-Tate. VisiCorp was demonstrating both VisiWord and Visi-on, and the presentation of the latter was well-done. MicroPro was showing off InfoStar, their new information management package. dBaseII was generating tremendous interest at Ashton-Tate. Lesser, but still significant, gatherings could be seen at Lotus (1-2-3) and Sorcim (SuperCalc, SuperWriter).
The interest in hardware seemed to center on the IBM PC compatible portable computers. Those booths were crowded all the time.
When I got back, my boss asked me for reactions. I was a little slow, so he prompted me. Star of the show? I hesitated. Most significant product? Slow again. Technological advances? At least on that I had a quick no. That put me on the spot, so I had to explain that I saw very few things that pushed technology or represented breakthroughs. That is not to say that nothing was interesting or that nothing was learned, but the simple fact is that nothing I saw made my eyeballs pop out.
IBM at Comdex
IBM has a vigorous ISO program, so they were at the show in force. (Sorry, that's redundant. If IBM is anywhere, it is always in force.) The PC was not particularly emphasized, although 20% or so of the exhibit was devoted to it. What was interesting was the software they were showing.
Recently, IBM loaned some number of schools IBM PCs with some educational software. It was this software that was on display, along with some mysterious-looking color display devices (IBM does not offer a color display). The whole thing was rather low-key.
While IBM may not have had the PC in force, everybody else did. Without a doubt, the PC was the most visible small computer at the show. Usually it was required to demonstrate PC compatible software or hardware, but it was also being used to demonstrate other products in situations in which any computer would have served.
What My Eyeball Saw
The 10% of my eyeball assigned to cover the PC got overworked, to say the least. I couldn't begin to describe all the products exhibited at the show, even if I could devote this entire issue to the task. The descriptions that follow are of some of the products that seem more significant or interesting to me.
In general, the PC was most visible demonstrating integrated software. "Integrated' is the new, great buzzword in the computer industry. It means that a program is capable of performing multiple kinds of work, and that it can do so on the same data set. For the IBM PC, a program called The MBA from Context Management Systems was the first product in this category. It can perform spreadsheet, database management, and word processing functions and can interchange data freely between its parts. There is no question that integration is necessary, but I think the jury is still out on some of these packages.
The five companies mentioned above, those attracting the crowds, were demonstrating their products on the IBM.
Local Area Networks
For a variety of reasons, I am interested in products that allow IBM Personal Computers to be clustered into small local area networks. I would also love to review these products, but it is hard to network the one computer in my basement. Hmmm, maybe I could cluster with my Atari VCS . . .
Three products exhibited at Comdex, and one that was announced there, have attracted my interest.
The flashiest exhibitor in this category was Novell Data Systems: the nature of their product was evident just by looking at the booth. Their Share Net product allows connection of up to 24 computers to a network processor built around the Motorola 68000 processor. Data rates are 300K to 500K baud per station, which Novell translates into an aggregate of 12 megabits per second for the network--a little optimistic in my opinion. The network nodes can be as far as 3000 feet from the network processor. Up to five printers are controlled by the print spooler, a function of the network processor. Up to 120 megabytes of storage are supported. An electronic mail package is available. Novell claims that PC DOS, CP/M-86 and the p-System are supported for the PC, and that other computers (Apple, TRS-80 Displaywriter, CP/M and Unix systems) are also supported.
There is one thing I like about ShareNet and one thing I don't like. The good thing is that no local disk storage is required in the network. This means that the network nodes can be completely diskless and do all their filing on the central disks. I'm impressed, too, because I didn't think this could be done without a modification to the IBM ROM. The bad thing is that the network topology is the star, with the requirement that each PC on the net has its own wire leading directly to the network processor. One of the points of local networks in my mind is to have ring or hub topologies to reduce the wiring cost, not to mention the mess. If the network is small, say five or six stations, this won't matter much.
The Cadillac of network systems is Plan 4000 from Nestar. Plan is a new product, and takes Nestar from a strictly Apple domain into the IBM world, although Apple and IBM computers can be mixed on the same network. The hardware is not compatible with previous Nestar products, although software should port. Nestar has implemented Arcnet, a token passing, baseband network architecture pioneered by DataPoint. They have followed the ISO (in this case, International Standards Organization) seven-layer model, using layers one and two from Arcnet and layers three and four from the Ethernet standard. The aggregate transmission rate is 2.5 megabits per second, and up to 255 nodes can be supported. Any two stations can be up to four miles apart.
The network processor, called a file server, is very sophisticated and powerful. It supports up to 548Mb of storage, but multiple file servers can be placed on the same network for even greater capacities. Streaming tape drives provide system backup. The file server does not provide printer spooling services, although Nestar may add the feature at a later time. Instead, a dedicated PC on the network provides the function and becomes the print server. Other PCs can be configured as gateway servers: multiple Plan 4000 systems may be linked, remote terminals may gain access, and Nestar even offers a Telex server. Electronic mail software is available.
The announced product is from Davong Systems, and is an integration of the Nestar Plan 4000 system into a small scale network of from two to six PCs. Unlike the Nestar product, which requires independent servers, one IBM PC with a Davong hard disk would function as the file server but also operate as a work station. Multiple file servers would also be allowed. The system will use the Nestar Arcnet hardware and software as the basis for the network. Davong plans to offer the product for IBM, Apple II, and III, and Osborne I, and will support PC DOS, CP/M-86, and the p-System.
In an associated product announcement at Comdex, Davong introduced their universal hard disk drive, with capacities of 5, 10, or 15Mb, and both streaming tape and cartridge disk (SyQuest 306) backup subsystems. The product allows the same disk hardware to be used on IBM, Apple, or Osborne systems with the appropriate interface hardware, and allows expansion of the disk subsystem to 60Mb, the kind of capacity that might be required in a relatively small network. A dealer gains flexibility in that only one disk subsystem need be stocked or serviced, regardless of the target system. Even though the universal drive is an external device, Davong pricing continues to be aggressive at $1995 for 5Mb, $2495 for 10, and $2995 for 15. The cartridge disk can be added for $1495. Photo 1 shows the universal disk.
I am sure that the Davong pricing for the network system will be competitive, in their tradition, but at the moment the low cost network seems to be PCnet, from Orchid Technology. The equipment and software required to add one PC to the net costs $695, and Orchid offers a "starter kit,' for $1490 which includes everything needed to get two PCs networked. The network uses baseband technology and offers a data transfer rate of 1 megabit per second.
The primary advantage of this product is that it supports hard disks from many vendors, and can thus be added even after a hard disk decision has been made. Orchid is not (yet?) a disk supplier, so they are probably a little more flexible. The software allows any PC to become a "resource server' and function as a work station at the same time. Electronic mail and print spooler software is available.
I have no specific recommendation to make about these products, particularly because I have much yet to learn. However, it looks like Nestar has the most sophisticated product, a statement supported by Davong's selection of Plan 4000 for their own product. It might even be possible to inter-connect Nestar and Davong networks, an interesting and potentially useful concept.
A number of new communications products made their debut at Comdex. The most interesting was the Professional Communication System (PCS) from Microcom, a hardware device from a company previously known only for its software. The PCS 1200 and PCS 300, operating at 1200 and 300 baud respectively, are complete communications systems in a box controlled by a 2.5MHz Z80 processor. The device can include 16K or 64K of memory which can be used in various combinations to receive data, transmit data, or manage a print spooler buffer. Two RS-232 ports allow connection of a computer and a printer, for example, at the same time. The local interfaces operate at up to 9600 baud and support the XON/XOFF protocol. Telephone connection is made via modular phone jack.
The PCS supports auto-dial and autoanswer, tone or pulse dialing, half or full duplex operation, and a loop back test. A clock/calendar with a display is integrated into the unit, although I do not know whether the time and date can be accessed by the system. A NiCad battery provides 30 days of protection in case of power failure; the system normally requires house current (105 to 127 VAC). When the PCS is used in conjunction with another PCS modem or a computer running Microcom's Micro-Courier software, an error detection and correction protocol embedded in the PCS firmware provides error-free transmission. The device, pictured in Photo 2, is capable of handling communications chores by itself, without host control.
The reason I call your attention to this product is its great functionality, its ability to transmit both text and binary data, and its ability to operate a serial printer without adding a second asynchronous adapter to the IBM PC. A PCS 300 costs $595 with 16K RAM, $695 with 64K. The PCS 1200 prices are $995 and $1095, respectively.
A quick aside: I have been using the Hayes Smartmodem for about a year and it's great. The Microcom PCS seems like a "souped-up' Smartmodem, but it may also have greater complexity. The thing that makes the Hayes product so terrific is simplicity.
There are several new products in the IBM 3270-compatible area. IBM announced such a product several months ago, but the third-party competition seems fierce. Given the huge number of 3270 terminal systems installed, it is not surprising. The general idea behind these products is the use of the IBM PC as a 3270 terminal. The two problems that have to be solved are the terminal emulation and the network connection.
I hope to try some of these products someday, but of course I don't have an IBM mainframe with 3270s in my basement. I won't attempt to pass judgment, but I note in passing from my reading of all the materials supplied by the vendors that the product from TAC seems the most straightforward. Careful: that's not a recommendation, only an observation.
IRMA is the Technical Analysis Corporation (TAC) product. It includes emulation software and a hardware device that allows the PC to be connected directly to most 3270 controllers. It costs $1195. AST Research, in conjunction with Communications Solutions, Inc., offers a 3270 SNA/SDLC interface for the IBM. The product allows a PC to emulate a 3274 cluster controller, and allows additional terminals or PCs to be supported by the emulating PC.
Persyst offers a slightly different product called the DCP/88 Distributed Communications Processor. The board has its own 8088 processor and up to 64K of memory. It supports two or four RS-232 ports in asynchronous or synchronous mode. IBM bisync, SDLC and HDLC are supported in synchronous mode. An optional printer interface, either Data Products or Centronics compatible, allows connection of printers with speeds up to 600 lines per minute. This sounds like a board to meet some pretty demanding communications requirements, but at the moment Persyst provides only on IBM bisync driver.
I'll include one other product in this category, although it is not strictly a communications device. It is called The Encryptor, from Jones Futurex, Inc. The device is available for the IBM PC, Apples, and S-100 systems. It uses the National Bureau of Standards' Data Encryption Standard (DES) to provide encryption and decryption functions. The press information was hard to make out, and I couldn't find the company on the floor at the show, but I deduce that the device is used under software control (software provided for PC DOS and CP/M-86) to encode a data file you wish to protect. The file can be protected locally, or transmitted to another computer for decryption. The hardware uses the Western Digital VLSI device, and the board is quite small. It will be interesting to learn whether the PC DOS version of the software insures that the clear version of the file on disk is actually erased: during a file transfer, the original file is left untouched, and deletion only causes the entry to be removed from the directory, not erased. For local protection, erasure would be essential.
The coming of an IBM version of Multi-Plan from Microsoft, sold through IBM, no doubt provided some motivation to Sorcim and VisiCorp to upgrade their spreadsheet products. In addition, both companies introduced word processing products, while the expected announcement of Multi-Word from Microsoft did not materialize.
Sorcim introduced SuperCalc2, an advanced version of their successful spreadsheet offering. Frankly, I always thought SuperCalc was richer than VisiCalc, but Sorcim lists a long list of features that are new, of which the most significant are consolidation and sorting. I think a particularly important feature is the fact that SuperCalc still operates in 64K of RAM on the PC, although I imagine the workspace has shrunk a little bit.
Advanced VisiCalc, introduced for the Apple III quite a while ago, is now also available for the IBM and DEC Personal Computers. The significant features here are variable column widths, online help, and consolidation. The program requires 128K of memory.
As for word processing, Sorcim introduced SuperWriter, while VisiCorp introduced Visi-Word. Lacking detailed information on both, I'll restrict my comments by saying only that both attempt to be user-friendly and both tout the support they provide for data interchange with their respective "calc' products.
Integrated Software Products
I wanted to spend some time with Context looking at the MBA, but either they weren't there or I didn't see them. Startup Lotus Development Corporation was there with a subdued but elegant booth and expensive-looking marketing materials. Their 1-2-3 package combines spreadsheet, graphic display, and information management functions in one program. Spreadsheet data can be quickly graphed (the color board is required for this) and data from the information manager can be integrated into spreadsheets. Each database can hold up to 2000 records, and a number of functions can be applied to select and sort the data records. Histograms can be developed from the data, and statistics (e.g. counts, sums, averages, variance, deviation) can be taken.
The Lotus literature sells the integration very hard, but it also sells two other things. The first is the spreadsheet portion itself, which Lotus claims is "the most comprehensive.' The feature list seems to match those of Advanced VisiCalc, SuperCalc2, and Multi-Plan, however, so that claim may be exaggerated. The second point is speed, emphasized over and over again in the literature. My observation at Comdex bears this out, but until I have tried it with large models or extensive data files, judgment will be withheld.
What impresses me most about Lotus, for the moment anyway, is the people. President Mitchell Kapor is the author of VisiTrend and VisiPlot, the sale of which netted a record of $1.2 million seed money for Lotus. Vern Raburn is the executive VP and general manager, and comes from a successful stint as a VP at Microsoft. Chris Morgan, vice-president in charge of communications, was previously editor-in-chief of Byte magazine. Not only that, but no less an industry guru than Ben Rosen, through Sevin-Rosen Investors, Ltd., is a principal investor and a director of Lotus. I just can't remember seeing a collection quite like that before.
I'll put two other products in the integrated category, even though they have the "visi-' kind of integration as opposed to Context or Lotus. The first is a set of programs from Perfect Software: Perfect Writer, Speller, Filer, and (can you guess?) Calc. The programs are advertised to have the same command language, and to allow easy interchange of data between modules. Perfect Software made a big splash by giving out free copies of their software at Comdex, with a retail value of $10 million, according to them. One was shoved (literally) into my hands, but unfortunately it turned out to be in 8 CP/M format. I'm on their list.
The other company is a new one, founded by Bruce McLoughlin (chairman) and Jim Edlin (president). Coincidentally, the company is named Bruce & James Program Publishers, Inc. The first product is WordVision, an IBM PC program that sells for $49.95. Breaking a long-standing tradition in the market, B & J software will name products with a suffix, "vision.' Look for FactVision, FileVision, ListVision, Math, Chart, Draw, Calc, Boss (?!?), Talk (I thought sure this would be Tele), and DeskVision.
Kidding aside, the concept is interesting. As Jim put it, "We're going to get high quality software into users' hands on the installment plan.' That explains the rock-bottom price. Bruce & James will sell "powerpacks' as add-ons to the basic program; in the case of WordVision, there will be a spelling program, thesaurus, style checker, letter writing aids, author's aids (footnotes and indexing, for example), and others. It appears that the user can buy what he needs while ignoring features and functions which aren't useful. Time will tell.
Odds and Ends
A few products also deserve mention, but don't fit in any of the categories mentioned above.
I want to mention Tecmar for two reasons. First, they have the SyQuest cartridge disk in a version that installs in the IBM system unit. $1795 gets you the disk, controller, and cartridge. The drive is also offered as part of their expansion chassis in a variety of configurations. That's the second reason for mentioning Tecmar. By Comdex, Tecmar had broadened their line of IBM PC products to 66, truly an incredible number.
What is important to note, however, is that Tecmar has products that nobody else seems to want to fool with. One vendor was telling me how a customer had asked for a communications adapter that would handle 16 asynchronous ports; the vendor directed the customer to Tecmar, because he figured if anybody had one, they would. (It turns out that they don't.) Tecmar is the only name in town for an expansion chassis, and they have the most complete line of equipment for scientific, industrial, and laboratory use.
Taurus Software announced CP+, a command language processor for CP/M, and in particular, for CP/M-86. Actually, the product is more a visual shell, providing a menu-driven way to perform most system functions without having to remember specific or complex command sequences. The Taurus example, and my favorite example too, is
A>pip B:FILENAME.TXT= A:FILENAME.TXT
which is pure junk. CP+ allows the same function (copying a file from one disk drive to the other) to be accomplished by answering a series of questions YES or NO, and by using the cursor to point to file names. The program is scheduled for IBM DOS too, but don't hold your breath. If everything said about the next version of MS-DOS comes to pass, the visual shell will be an integral part of the operating environment.
The Sorbus Service Division of MAI now offers both on-site and carry-in repair service for IBM Personal Computers. They will also service configurations of the machine that include non-IBM hardware. Sorbus does not require a contract for over-the-counter service, billing on an incident basis, but offers competitive contract agreements for regular service. Sorbus has been servicing IBM mainframes for the past ten years, and has an established network of 160 service locations nationwide.
The last thing on my list is Metafile. Perhaps I should have talked about this product in the integrated software section, but the product is really an integrated software development tool. The brochure describes how Metafile goes beyond packages, beyond database, beyond prompting, beyond word processing.
The product is "a comprehensive system of facilities needed to handle diverse information,' according to the press kit. The program can be used to prepare reports, menus, documents, data entry forms, letters, spreadsheets, and procedures. Data can be merged with text for reports or mailing lists. Spreadsheets can be linked to data files or other spreadsheets. Applications, from simple to complex, can be developed.
I don't really know how to describe the product, but I understand it quite well. In simple terms, I would call it a programming language, except that it is a total environment, not just a language. It is enormously powerful. What I can't decide, without some further investigation, is if the product is suitable only for software developers or if users can build applications with it. If the latter is the case, Metafile is a hot property.
You will see more from me on just about everything mentioned in this column. I hope the brief descriptions are of some value to you, and I encourage you to consider carefully your own requirements and examine these products in detail before making a buying decision. Good luck.
Next month, a tutorial on Basic program development tools, and the Basic to BIOS connection.
Photo: Photo 1.
Photo: Photo 2.