David Tebbutt, MacUser issue no. 37 - scanned
Good old Apple kindly took a whole bunch of UK journalists over to the Macworld Expo in Amsterdam. The highlights of the trip for me were spending a couple of hours stuck at Amsterdam airport with Apple's John Leftwich (who I knew in his previous incarnation at Apricot), the Macworld Expo itself and an exhibition in the next hall. I suppose it was a bit naughty going next door when Apple had paid for me to visit Macworld. On the other hand, I felt I owed it to you to see what's going on in the world of optical information systems. This other show had the catchy title of 'Opticalinfo 89 Onlineinfo 89'. I think I'll call it Ol for short.
What a contrast between the two shows. Macworld was full of exciting applications incorporating graphics and sound while Ol was more like the reading room of the British Library. In this atmosphere of calm, earnest people were primarily discussing the wonders of CD-ROM storage and retrieval.
Some stands had PCs in attendance (the computers I mean) while others had Macintoshes. But the emphasis was almost completely on textual information.
I did persuade one stand-holder to retrieve some graphical information and he very apologetically pulled up the worst line drawing I've ever seen. He did zoom in to it, but that just made it look worse.
It strikes me that the organisers of Ol would have benefited greatly from popping next door into Macworld. Don't get me wrong. The applications shown at Ol were very worthy, they just weren't very exciting.
Can you believe that the British and French national libraries have collaborated on the production of a CD-ROM? It contains details of 60,000 books and can be browsed in French, English, German and Italian. Sadly, the driver software only works on PCs. Still, it's very nice, even though it is only textual and doesn't appear to include any whizzy hypertext-type links.
Robert Maxwell was represented in the form of one of his Pergamon companies and a Dutch sister company. One was showing both PC and Mac based CD-ROM databases. The other specialised in the production of aircraft maintenance documentation. At the heart of each system is the Knowledge Retrieval System (KRS). This can be provided with a variety of front-ends, to cope with text, graphics and different machine types.
You can browse through headings, subheadings and document titles. You can call up a list of titles of documents which refer to the current document. You can list all the documents referred to by the current document and you can take hypertext-like sideways jumps to documents referenced by the current document. A backtrack option enables you to retrace your steps. Further options include word search and logical choices such as 'x ALONG WITH y BUT NOT z'. You can also search for word combinations which are adjacent, close or within a specified distance from each other.
The graphical version of KRS can handle vector, run-length encoded and bit-mapped graphics. Text and graphics can be displayed in adjacent windows and all graphics can be panned. Vector graphics can be zoomed in and out as well.
It struck me that Mr Maxwell and his merry men have a better idea than most of what the optical and online information market is all about.
It's a pity that Pergamon's up-market image was spoilt by a rack of flyers promoting a CD-ROM version of the 'Defender of the Crown' computer game. I'm sure this is a technical marvel, including an orchestral and speech sound track, but we could have done without the air-brushed illustration of a hideously proportioned damsel in distress.
Back in Macworld, quite a few things caught my eye. For a start all the graphics were light years ahead of the stuff in the Ol exhibition. Plenty of companies had 1024x768 resolution colour screens which come close enough to real life for most people's needs.
Apple said in its 1988 annual report that "we believe Macintosh's future is as a kind of 'user control panel' - what the user will see is the familiar face of Macintosh". Behind the scenes could lie a world of alien computers, programs and data. This was very evident at Macworld.
Macs were being used to create films and animation sequences. They were used as control consoles in a recording studio. I saw them fronting UNIX (both Apple's and DEC's) through a Finder-like interface. And I even saw a factory control and monitoring system in action.
Whichever way you looked, Macs were doing ambitious and interesting work. This was such a contrast to the average PC show which tends to be dominated by boring, mundane applications.
Apple also mentioned in its annual report that by the time today's five year olds reach high school, they will have to handle something like 30 times more information than today's students. That is a horrifying prospect. Especially if the teaching and information access methods were to remain as they are now.
Of course, Apple and its many third party developers will try to make sure that they provide the tools needed to usher in this information-rich world. Judging from Macworld and, to be fair, the Ol show too, this is already happening.
Products like KRS and HyperCard are just the thin end of a very large wedge. And it may just be that Apple has an unassailable edge over the other manufacturers.
Although all the personal computer firms are on a convergent course regarding the user interface, all except Apple have tackled this very human aspect of computing as an afterthought. For example Windows followed DOS, Presentation Manager followed OS/2 and X-Windows et al followed UNIX.
Apple kicked off by deciding that it was the user that came first and has led the field in this respect ever since. Every Macintosh development is built on this solid foundation of concern for the individual.
In the end, this is what marks Apple out from the others. It is what makes Macintosh special. it's why Apple doesn't have to keep looking over its shoulder. And no-one can take this away from the company.
This was well and truly brought home to me at the Macworld Expo in Amsterdam.