This has been an incredibly fertile year in the personal computer industry, with important breakthroughs popping up just about every time you turn around.
If Steve Jobs' company, Next Computer Inc., comes out with its new machine (originally promised for June) this fall, 1987 could go down as the most innovative year of the PC industry's 12-year history. That makes it tough to keep up with what's new. In other words, it's time for one of those catch-up columns, offering brief looks at some of the best new products and ideas of recent weeks:
The best new free program, MS-DOS division, is a little gem called DIRNOTES. This utility, written by Michael Mefford of PC Magazine, works around the maddening MS-DOS limitation that restricts the name of any file to just 11 characters. DIRNOTES lets you add a full line of description of each file and then displays each file description whenever you look at the directory of a disk. That way, you can find out what is in the text file you saved two years ago under the name "Anderson.ltr."
You can find DIRNOTES in the Sept. 15 issue of PC Magazine, or download it from the magazine's free data base by hooking up your modem and calling 212-696-0360.
The best free program, Macintosh division, is the Hypercard data-base program discussed in this space last month. To its credit, Apple says it will bundle the program free with every new Macintosh starting sometime this fall. (If you already own a Mac, Hypercard costs $49.)
The best new word processing program for MS-DOS machines may well be Q&A Write, an old-but-new offering from Symantec, publishers of the respected Q&A data-base manager. The Q&A data base program comes with a built-in word processor that is fast, easy to learn and fairly powerful. So many Q&A owners have started using this built-in module as their primary word processor that Q&A has decided to offer it separately as Q&A Write.
The program doesn't have the enormous range of features (or the complexity) of WordPerfect or Microsoft Word. But for simple business reports and correspondence, it could be a dream word processor for a lot of people.
The best new software poster is -- well, perhaps this category needs a word of explanation. Software houses love to produce witty, eye-catching posters to tout their wares. The best of the year is a strange but funny concoction that shows how the Founding Fathers could have used Microsoft Project, a project management program, to schedule the writing of the Constitution.
The best new graphics display board for personal computers is a stunner called the Pepper 1600 from a Cambridge, Mass., start-up called Number Nine Computer Corp. The Pepper produces almost 2 million pixels, or dots of light, on the screen -- making for sharpness, color and detail that can't be touched.
So what if the Pepper board costs upward of $1,500, and the multisync-type monitor that can take advantage of its power is another $700? Put that combination on your run-of-the-mill $2,000 AT clone, and you've got display capability like that on a $10,000 Sun work station. We haven't seen a color Mac yet (Apple's color monitor is due any day now), but it's hard to imagine it could top the display you get on an MS-DOS machine with a Number Nine graphics board.
The best suggestion from a reader of this column in the past few weeks comes from a lawyer who had a useful tip about buying computer gear from a mail-order house: When you buy via mail order, don't send a check -- use a credit card instead. Then if the gear never shows up, or if you can't get satisfactory warranty service, you can withhold payment on your credit card. The card issuer is required to suspend billing until the dispute between you and the seller is resolved.
The best new use for a personal computer was devised by an artist in New York named David Chalk. Mr. Chalk's artistic medium is the tattoo. To permit the development of intricate tattoos, without the necessity of erasing (a trying procedure in the tattoo business), he is designing new tattoos with a paint program on his Macintosh. For this new application, Mr. Chalk has the perfect name: Fleshtop Publishing.
The message in Fleshtop Publishing is the core message at the heart of the personal computer revolution: Almost any task once done with pencil and paper can be done faster and better with a personal computer. The chore can be as exotic as tattooing, or as everyday as typing a memo.
In either case, the computer's power to manage and manipulate information -- words, numbers, pictures or sounds -- enhances our ability to get the job done. That's why the computer is revolutionary, and that's why we're lucky to be living in this revolutionary age.