Loose cables is an irreverent look behind the scenes at testing computer products, in particular at IDG's Infoworld lab in the US. Our insights are gleaned during the long hours spent testing, and even longer hours spent sorting through outrageous vendor claims and press releases. Some of the insights are technical, some are political, and some are just funAs part of our research for this week's tech analysis on message queuing, we evaluated training options for those new to the subject. Classroom courses are available, but that means airfare, hotels and time away from work. Vendors offer on-site classes, but this too can be time-consuming and expensive.
This led us to look at computer-based training (CBT), which averages around $1000 per student compared to several thousand dollars for an off-site class. Just as importantly, CBTs are self-paced which means they fit more easily into a busy schedule. However, we have two gripes with the message-queuing CBTs we looked at (pet peeves most CBTs unfortunately share): inadequate bookmarking features and skimpy platform support.
Typical of self-paced instruction, we had numerous interruptions while slogging through the CBTs such as phone calls, bosses and meetings. Naturally, the interruptions seemed to come at the most inopportune times -- during the explanation of a particularly critical concept, for instance. But instead of being able to return to where we left off, we often had to go back to the beginning of a course module or a quiz. What's so hard about including a simple, precise electronic dog-earing feature?
Our other complaint, limited platform support, is tinged with irony. After all, message queuing manages distributed application data exchange across many platforms. However, the CBTs we evaluated only ran on Windows platforms (and OS/2 in one case). We think it's time for all CBTs to be browser-based. This approach would certainly reach the greatest potential audience.
Tempest in a browser
Solid Oak Software and its product Cybercensor (err, we mean Cybersitter) have stumbled into a brouhaha -- again. For those not in the know, Cybersitter is an Internet filtering product that adults can use to block questionable sites from innocent young eyes. Solid Oak's chief pooh-bah, Brian Milburn, has had a lot of grief due to allegations of a political agenda behind the blocking.
It was recently reported that shortly after Web designer Sarah Salls sent a critical e-mail to Milburn and Solid Oak's technical support and customer feedback addresses, she was bombarded by more than 800 replies to the effect of "bug off".
Without getting too deep into this little controversy, let's just say that after hearing this report, we savoured the irony when we read a tout sheet for another Solid Oak pro-duct, Re:PLY: "Re:PLY will let you automatically maintain a list of unwanted junk e-mail senders," the report stated. "From then on, any mail received from those sources will be automatically deleted from your server so you will never even know that the message was sent! We are also maintaining a list of known spammers that you can download and automatically update anytime you like."
Known spammers? We guess it takes one to know one.
Lucent's net blaze has lost some heat
While the Demo '98 hobnob raged like something out of The Great Gatsby last month, a few rats took a more sober junket to the other coast to visit Lucent Technologies' sprawling lab maze. We felt right at home.
Since its spin-off from AT&T, Lucent has attempted to shed the conservative image of its telco legacy and position itself as a wired, leading-edge provider of corporate data solutionsIn a Test Centre Comparison on centralised messaging last year, we viewed Lucent as a comer, and our day on campus left us with the same impression. Unfortunately, that's another way of saying the company appears to be spinning its wheels.
As you might expect from the birthplace of Unix and the transistor, Lucent is blessed with smarts. Bill O'Shea, chief of the Data Networking group, and sweet but feral hacker-in-residence Bill Cheswick are both sharp as tacks, and the company has several intriguing products in the pipeline, including the small, fast, and secure Inferno 2.0. We also liked the look and feel of a Web phone that Lucent is jointly developing with Philips. But although assorted small ventures in the company gestate quietly, the company's public strategy seems scattered.
For instance, with its recent purchase of Prominet, Lucent seemed to be putting most of its chips on next-generation Ethernet. Not so, we were told. Support and development for ATM remain very much a priority.
In fact, though we were reading faces and not financials, we got the distinct impression that Lucent may have paid too much to join the Gigabit Ethernet club.
Forehead lines grew even deeper when the subject of the Microsoft-Intel-Compaq Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line Lite consortium came up. Lucent's Bell Labs holds some of the earliest and most fundamental Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) patents, and the company is moving DSL forward in the same direction as the consortium. It wasn't Lucent's name in the headlines, though.
Although Lucent is a bit too big to be termed a fledgling, the excitement sparked by its flight from the nest has fully faded. It seems that nifty ring of fire logo and the spin-off slingshot effect only took them so far. Perhaps Lucent recognised the same lack of focus we perceived; they recently reorganised from three divisions to 11. Now, of course, comes the hard part.
The Wired jinx
From Silicon Valley to San Francisco, Highway 101 is the farm-to-market link for all manner of high-tech companies -- sort of Tobacco Road with carpool lanes. The billboards along the way are in constant rotation: Apple one week, Excite the next, and Intel the week after that.
But one billboard might not be so high on media planners' pick lists. For several months, Wired News has been using it to advertise its special reports -- a promotion that's been as unlucky to its subjects as a Sports Illustrated cover story.
Case in point: late in 1997, the billboard touted Wired's special report on Java, which is now looking less likely to become a true cross-platform technology. And shortly after an ad for Wired's feature on Netscape appeared, that company took a huge loss.
Who will be next to bear the curse of the Wired billboard? Our cracked crystal ball came up with . . . Oracle.
Obey, consume, test
Several readers alerted us to yet another solution for the laptop-privacy problem we've been kicking around since the new year. After this tip, we promise to move on. We're starting to sound a little paranoid.
Man & Machine (www.man-machine.com), offers a service in the US called InvisiView for a price of $US295, a process of stripping away a laptop screen's polarising layer and adding a slotted plastic frame around the display. For normal viewing, you simply slip a polarising sheet into the frame.
One reader says the stripped and filtered screen looks like a normal laptop display. Other reports say the processed screen is slightly brighter than normal.
Without the sheet in the frame, the screen appears blank with an even, light grey tone. For your-eyes-only viewing, you don special polarising glasses -- Man & Machine also offers clip-ons -- that let you (and only you) view the blanked-out screen.
The glasses have a slight tint, making the display appear slightly dimmer.
All of the readers who wrote to us with eyewitness reports about "InvisiViewed" screens said the process works well. Still, most people are probably wary of stripping a layer off the screen of a pricey laptop. If you don't like the results, there's no going back.
Meanwhile, we'd like to get our hands on a pair of those special sunglasses. Anybody out there remember John Carpenter's They Live? Never mind our seatmate's spreadsheet -- maybe the specs would give us a peek at what's really on those billboards along Highway 101.
This week's contributors were Maggie Biggs, Sean Dugan, Chip Brookshaw and Test Centre alumnus Holly Blumenthal.
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