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Digital Apartheid

Digital Apartheid

I remember it as one of my parents' major investments. Both of them placed a great emphasis on education, so they were keen when the Encyclopaedia Britannica salesman called some time in the mid-1960s. Little was I to know then that their great sacrifice was to cost me half a day in lost productivity, and several hundred dollars in out-of-pocket expenses, 35 years later. It's a bit of a saga, but my story illustrates what's "wrong" with today's world of computing. Influenced as I was by a childhood of poring over volumes of Britannica for school assignments I naturally liked the idea of owning a multi-media version of it. Like my parents, I hoped to tempt my children away from more trivial pursuits into a wonderful world of knowledge. I acquired the first CD version of Britannica in 1997. Recently I received a tempting offer to upgrade to the latest release with full multimedia capabilities. I couldn't resist. That's when my troubles started.

I placed the installation disk into the CD drive and it immediately started loading the software. It quickly hit a hurdle: the program needed 800 x 600 pixels screen resolution. My other 15 or so programs run quite happy with 640 x 480. In fact I had deliberately selected this screen setting option because I found the image clearer. So I made my first compromise: to run one program I diminished 15 other ones. Compared with what followed this was trivial. I soon encountered the next obstacle. The program advised me it needed functionality from Internet Explorer 4. This was a surprise because I had only loaded Netscape onto my desktop because this was the default browser on the earlier version of Britannica. Someone had made a decision to change courses and no one had consulted me, the client, on the advisability of this action. Previously Netscape 4 and Explorer 3 had happily coexisted on my PC, but I was about to encounter a digital equivalent of apartheid. The installation CD determined I must load Explorer 4; despite my acceptance of this the installation bombed out. After a fruitless hour trying to get round this I called Britannica's help desk.

The advice was startling. Apparently Netscape 4 antagonises either Explorer 4 or Britannica and must be deleted. Half an hour later -- no joy at hand.

Perhaps I need a different version of the Explorer 4.0 installation software than the one that comes with the Britannica CD. Why not try downloading one from the Internet? Problem number three was coming my way.

My ISP uses Internet 3.0 as its default browser -- which I didn't know. My attempts to load Explorer 4 with the Britannica installation had mangled the 3.0 files. The Internet was now out of bounds. A call to One-Tel's help desk copped a $10 service fee. I recovered my Internet access, but I learned a painful truth: One-Tel had not yet released a version of its access software that was compatible with Explorer 4.0. I could either do without the Internet for the next six months or I could do without Britannica. All this took four hours. In fact, the morning of Friday March 6 was a productivity free zone. I recount this tale not to humiliate Britannica. I am sure it will prove in time to be a powerful reference source and a very cost-effective investment.

However, I'm also sure that my frustrations are multiplied manyfold throughout the offices of corporate Australia today. What's presented as a desktop world of Plug and Play is in fact a realm of much exasperation and lost productivity.

The PC may be helping revolutionise our lives but until it understands the meaning of the word "robust" it might also be more trouble than it's worth.

Peter Hind is the manager of User Programs, which includes InTEP, at IDC Australia

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