Thirteen years and nine months. That's how long this column has been in business. It started in April 1995 with a jape about "Microsoft Sex"--a mythical product that I proposed as a follow-up to the company's amazingly awful Microsoft Bob. Since then, you, I, and my other reader have whiled away the years watching PC hardware, software, and services miraculously evolve from expensive, complex, and buggy to cheap, complex, and buggy.
But with this installment, Full Disclosure is shutting its doors for good. Since everything must go, we're clearing the shelves of material that somehow never saw the light of day, and a fake interview is the easiest way to knit it all together. So here goes:
I: What changes have you seen in your 25 years of covering personal technology?
It's list season here at PC World, so I may as well join in--with something that resembles the "little list" made famous by Ko-Ko, Lord High Executioner in Gilbert and Sullivan's classic The Mikado. He sings of "offenders who might well be underground, and who never would be missed." Me, too.
Seven Wonders of Microsoft 'Innovation'
7. Microsoft Live Search: Isn't it wonderful that they have to pay you to use it?
You've just installed the mostly estimable Firefox 3. Now you proceed to make an online purchase and head straight for the checkout page. The page claims to be secure, but...whoa! Where's the little lock that used to be to the right of the address? Why isn't the entire address yellow, signifying a secure site? Because, in the words of the immortal Dr. John, "Somebody changed the lock."
Oh, it's still around. It just moved to the status bar down in the lower-right corner of the window. You can almost see the justification for the change: Showing the lock there has a long history, particularly with Internet Explorer. You could argue that a lock in that spot is the de facto indicator of a secure page, and that it's simpler to tell users to look there for the icon. But putting the lock beside the address makes so much sense that Microsoft moved it to that spot in Internet Explorer 7. Smart move. Firefox should have stuck to its guns.
But no. In what's meant to be an improvement, the new browser dumps the yellow address bar for clickable color-coded "Instant Web Site ID" indicators that appear at the left of the URL. They're supposed to improve security reporting, but in reality they're hopelessly geeky and confusing. How geeky? A green background for a site's icon signifies that the page supplies identity information and is encrypted. Blue means the site is encrypted but doesn't supply identity info. Gray is for sites that don't report much of anything at all.
It's so painful to move your life from one Windows machine to another that I tend to buy PCs only when I have to. But as I mentioned last month, Microsoft's abandonment of Windows XP sent me scrambling to find a replacement for my superannuated but still functioning subnotebook. I kept hoping that some undiscovered Web magic might somehow make the process easier this time. But, as my latest go-round shows, once you're done shopping, the Web doesn't really help you much.
Web deals aren't always best: With so many online stores refusing to publish telephone contacts, I had dropped my old habit of picking up the handset to get better deals. This time was different. When I went to configure my new Sony laptop online, I found a "Fresh Start" option that would minimize crapware and save me $25, but the only mention of XP was a little display ad with a phone number.
When I called, the salesperson explained how to get the XP "downgrade" discs: I would have to pay $100 to "upgrade" to Vista Business ("upgrade to downgrade"--that's a concept the late George Carlin would have savored). Then the rep started offering me better deals than I could find on Sony's site. First was an offer of $100 off the machine's Web-posted price. I took him up on a different deal that ended up saving me $150 on the laptop with a three-year accidental-damage warranty, provided that I also bought two accessories, including a spare battery I wanted anyway. So much for thinking that Web prices are set in stone.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of my affair with 3-pound notebooks. In 1998 I fell in love with Sony's pioneering 1-inch-thick VAIO 505G, and I've kept the flame burning with a couple of its successors. But now the unit I've been carrying everywhere for four years has a Webcam that's dead and a keyboard with shiny surfaces where various letters should be. Before the Wizards of Redmond could drive a stake completely through XP's heart, I went looking for a portable that wasn't restricted to The Windows That Must Not Be Named. Making a choice turned out to be a surprisingly tough call.
I briefly considered deserting Windows entirely. But Apple's Macbook Air resembles the original VAIO lightweights, with dongles for important connections and an optical drive that's both outboard and optional. That combination is state of the art--for 1998. And since a charged-up spare battery often saves my bacon, the Air's nonremovable cells make this ultraportable a classic form-kills-function Steve Jobs Vanity Machine.
Lenovo's ThinkPad X300 series has an excellent keyboard, a built-in DVD writer, plenty of connectors, and XP if desired, but the 13.3-inch LED-backlit screen is rather dim. Worse, the unit ships with a 64GB solid-state hard drive only. That helps the system boot in just 45 seconds--but hikes the cost to a luxury-liner minimum of $3200. And the package weighs about 3.4 pounds, a little porky for an "ultralight" model.