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The Northern Spy
Dec 2004

Spying out Basic Software

Rick Sutcliffe

In last month's opening column in this series for computing beginners the Spy discussed initial hardware purchases. This month, he takes a similar approach to the initial software investment. .

Computer, drive, monitor, and printer by themselves are just expensive circuit collections. They can do nothing, except serve as doorstops or decorations. The programs that run on the hardware complete the system by providing it with the coded instructions for the CPU (Central Processing Unit) that tell it what to do.

The Operating System

Computers all come with a suite of programs called an OS or Operating System. Usually this is pre-installed on a disk drive internal to the computer. Think of this OS suite as a supervisor and enabler for everything that goes on while the computer is running. A portion of the OS is stored in permanent ROM (Read Only Memory) inside the computer itself. When the computer is first turned on, this firmware takes over operation of the system, starts up a disk drive, and loads much or all of the remaining OS from it into temporary RAM (Random Access Memory).

If memory is scarce, some of the OS may be left on the disk and automatically traded into memory as required. However, this process can be quite slow, hence the admonition last month to buy plenty of memory lest the OS end up walking rather than running.

It is important to keep original copies of the OS on a CD or some other medium separate from the hard drive, as it will be required to reinstall the OS from time to time when the disk copy becomes damaged. Since an operating system install may include a number of other programs, any of those updated prior to an install must be re-updated afterwards. If the crash was so serious as to wipe out all disk data, every program must be re-installed, and the user's data restored from the daily backup.

Note that the issue here is not if you will suffer an incident that destroys everything on the hard drive (perhaps ruining the device itself) but why and when this will happen. The why could include bugs in the OS that damage the drive data, viruses, Trojan horses, and other malware obtained via carelessness in using the Internet, and operator error (accidentally deleting files). You did make a backup of your work every day, didn't you?

The very first time a computer is run while connected to the Internet, the OS manufacturer (Microsoft, Apple, etc.) must be contacted to ensure the software is up to date. If this does not happen automatically, there is a menu item the user can select to trigger an update. Note that all security patches and other upgrades affecting the system install must be re-done after reinstalling the OS from the original disks.

Do not, however, respond to any eMail message or web site announcement telling you to download software to improve your computer's security. Such announcements are always fraudulent, designed to get you to install a virus, take control of your machine, or steal your personal information.

Once loaded, this main OS takes over control of the machine, providing all other programs with the ability to organize memory, display data on the screen, load and save files from the disk drive, and communicate with printer, keyboard, scanner, and network.

If you purchased a Macintosh from Apple Computer, you will have the latest version of Mac OS X (Panther or Tiger), and if a Pentium compatible machine, a version of Windows. The latter is somewhat similar to, and imitates the Mac OS in both functionality and appearance. Innovations brought to the Macintosh usually show up in Windows OS sometime within the next few years. Only very rarely does something new appear in Windows first.

However, the resemblance, while perhaps flattering to the Mac OS designers, is somewhat superficial. Windows is proprietary to Microsoft and written in such a way that others cannot view the original code and suggest improvements. Some portions of the Mac OS are also proprietary, but the underpinnings are based on BSD Unix, a large collection of programs whose source code is freely available for everyone to examine. Moreover, UNIX has been around since the 1960s, so most of the errors have long since been found and fixed. Windows is comparatively new and still quite error-prone, though recent versions have shown great improvement.

As noted last month, the design of Mac OS also offers a better defense against malware (viruses, Trojan horses and other harmful programs), which abounds in the Windows world, but is rarely seen in the Mac universe.

Yet another OS choice, though probably not ideal for beginners, is Linux, another variant of UNIX, but which currently offers fewer choices in application programs that run under it than either of the two above. It also requires somewhat more experience to use properly.

It is important to note, by the way, that programs bought to operate under one operating system will not work under another. This is because the codes that a Pentium processor requires are different from those that run a PowerPC chip, and because the instructions used in talking to the operating system for manipulating data and files also differ. That said, many manufacturers make versions of their programs for both primary platforms, and even if they do not, others fill the gap with similar offerings.

Thus, there is only personal preference to determine which OS (and therefore which hardware) one uses. Windows offers more games, Mac OS better ease of use, more reliability, and less down time. The Spy advises any beginner purchasing a Windows box to make friends with a geek who can explain how to operate the machine, periodically clean up the problems, reinstall the OS every few months, and tell you what is broken and how to replace it. This may not be necessary with a Mac, at least after the first month of orientation.

Productivity applications

Word Processor

Almost everyone buys a computer at least in part to write documents. A good word processor is therefore almost a necessity. The most common one is Microsoft Word, a component of Microsoft Office, likely found on over 90% of all computers. Originally a Macintosh program, but later ported to Windows, Word is the Swiss army knife of word processors, with every new version offering more features and abilities. Indeed, some find the number of options bewildering, and prefer faster and simpler programs.

Macintosh versions of Office/Word are released in even numbered years, and Windows versions in odd numbered ones, so one or the other sometimes has more features, but the two versions are essentially the same program, just compiled into the correct codes for the OS and hardware. Word files produced on one platform are fully readable and editable on the other, as well as by any programs that can work with .doc or .rtf files. (These suffixes are appended to the file name to assist Windows to open the correct program for them. They are unnecessary on the Mac, but can be useful.)

A user with specialized multi-language requirements, for instance, processing documents with text alternating between Hebrew, Greek, English, and Chinese, should consider one of the speciality products on the Mac such as NisusWriter or Mellel, as Mac OS X is better at handling such font requirements. However, for people who produce many small documents, require moderate formatting options in one language at a time, or pass them among several revisers, Word is the standard. However, there are alternatives.

On Windows boxes, small documents with minimal formatting requirements can be handled by WordPad, or even the very simple NotePad, both of which come free with the OS and can handle many small editing jobs with aplomb. The likewise cross platform word processor OpenWord, part of the free OpenOffice package, can do most of what Word can at a fraction of the cost. Corel's ancient word processing workhorse WordPerfect is also quite capable of handling standard files and has many fans. It too is relatively inexpensive.

The Mac side of the fence offers several choices. Apple's supplied program Preview allows a variety of files to be read but not edited. The free text editor BBEdit (there's also a more full-featured paid version) can edit text that does not require fancy formatting such as bold, italics, and multiple fonts/sizes. WordPerfect was never successfully ported to the Mac, but several companies offer full-fledged word processors to compete directly with Word, including Mariner Write, Mellel, and the spy's favourite, NisusWriter. However, the latter has been slow to make the transition from OS 9 to OS X, and is still missing some important functionality, so it is not yet suitable for advanced users.

Also, Apple itself has a light competitor to the entire Office package called AppleWorks. Its word processing and other capabilities are sufficient for most users.

Of these, only the old OS 9 version of Nisus can handle very large manuscripts properly. Word can take minutes to do simple operations once the document exceeds a certain size, so book authors keep their MS in separate chapters and only assemble them when it's time to submit to the publisher. Alternately, they look for a specialized book writing package.


Originally, spreadsheets were large pieces of paper ruled in rows and columns to assist accountants and others to categorize revenues and expenses and to balance their books. Often, spreadsheets were bound a hundred pages or more in large, heavy ledgers. Balancing them was a difficult and time consuming chore. The Spy knows. He did it that way for the Canadian Pacific Railway as an assistant accountant in Telecommunications Toronto (1965), and later for his church.

Visicalc was the first program to make the spreadsheet electronic, about 1978, and ran only on Apple computers, helping them to achieve a large market penetration in business applications. Others versions followed, including The Spreadsheet on Apple ][ and Lotus 1-2-3, which was the standard for a while on Intel hardware. Though it was larger and slower than Visicalc, Lotus had a few more features. Later, Microsoft jumped into the spreadsheet market with Excel, first on the Mac, and later on Intel hardware.

Arguably the best and most important program ever written in any application category, and also a component of MS Office, Excel is indispensable for the account, financial planner, forecaster, or anyone else who must track and manipulate figures. It quickly wiped out all the competition, and reigns supreme in its market niche, offering the most features and the greatest ease of use of any such program ever constructed. The last completely bug free version was Excel 98, but the problems in versions since then affect mainly appearance, not computations.

The Spy first began keeping books for Aldergrove Baptist Church on Visicalc, and that spreadsheet model has grown and changed over the years until today it takes about 5M of disk space to store a year's financial information using Excel. If an accountant buys no other software, she must buy Excel.


Storing, tracking, searching, using, or presenting large amounts of data, such as mailing lists, account and billing information, bibliographies up to and including an entire library, demands a program designed for this purpose. If the database is not more than a thousand items, Excel has some database features and is sufficient. Otherwise, it's time to invest in more specialized software called a DBMS (Data Base Management System).

If you bought MS Office to get word processing and spreadsheet, there's good news and bad news. The good news is that Office for Windows comes with a free database program called Access and many small businesses use it because it's free. The bad news is that Access is not useable for large applications (file size limitations), primitive, clumsy, and worth what you pay for it, usually relegated to last place in reviews of such programs. More good news is that it isn't even included in Mac versions of Office because MS has never bothered to port it.

No, the bottom line here is that if you need a program in this category, you should pay for an industrial strength database manager. FileMaker, from FileMaker Corp. (an Apple subsidiary) and 4th Dimension are both good products, cross-platform, and not overly expensive. In a corporate setting, one might be running IBM's DB2, Sybase, or Oracle on a mainframe computer, and only need a client program on the Windows or Mac computer.

Do careful research here and don't jump in until sure the DBMS does do what you want (insist on visiting an existing customer and seeing it in action.)

Presentation software

Seen a speaker attach a computer to a video projector and show a large outline of her talk on the screen? These are done with presentation software, which allow you to control the colour, background graphics, special effects (such as fading in each slide) and general organization of the presentation. The standard program is MS PowerPoint, another free component of Office, but one that is available on both platforms and that does carry some real value. Mac users who do not have Office (and some that do) might want to consider purchasing Apple's Keynote program, which raises the bar for this software category considerably.


Even those who use nothing else of the software described here will employ an eMail program. In the same sense that Visicalc was the "killer application" for business in 1978, home users often buy computers today solely for communication purposes. Once a curiosity of the original academic networks (ARPANET, BITNET) that predated the modern Internet, eMail has become indispensable, changing society forever.

Just as the slow, thoughtful enjoyable read of a great novel has gone into decline in the face of the ten second TV clip, so the practice of writing long, carefully thought personal letters has all but vanished, replaced with the terse, one or two lines of an eMail message that substitute for real communication. In mimicry of the trash basket at the local post office, our electronic garbage overflows with daily doses of junk mail. However, misunderstanding and inconveniences notwithstanding, eMail is the one application most people cannot live without, for its messages arrive instantly, not in the several months Post Office snail mail may require.

Note that in order to send and receive eMail, one must have an account on a remote machine set up for the purpose. If buying service from an ISP (telephone company, cable vendor or dial up service) that service probably includes at least one minimal eMail account with instructions on how to set it up and use it. Look for the section in those instructions on secure POP and SMTP, and use those settings so that traffic back and forth to your computer is encrypted and cannot be read by hackers who are all too willing to take over your account to send out millions of unsolicited "span" messages at your expense.

If your name is Johannes Staedler and you want mail to come to johannes@staedler.com, you will need to register the staedler.com domain (if available) for about $15CDN a year at one of the many domain registrars or a reseller thereof (including the Spy's own WebNameSource.com) and set up a forward to send the mail to your ISP account. More on this in a later month.

Windows comes with Microsoft's Outlook Express as the default mail program. For many beginners, this is an adequate solution, and if not, the full-featured version of Outlook is part of the Microsoft Office package. However, Outlook has proven quite vulnerable over the years to virus and Trojan horse attacks, and users would be well-advised to consider venerable old stalwart alternatives such as Pegasus (Windows only) or Eudora (both free, but Eudora carries advertising you can pay to remove). There are numerous alternatives, some free, some commercial.

Mac OS X comes with Apple's commercial-quality program bearing the truly inspired name Mail. While early editions of this program were incomplete by modern standards, the Apple product has matured into a good, solid workhorse, and many people will be quite satisfied with it. Apple also pushes it's .Mac service, which supplies eMail accounts and some web space for $99/year, but this is not necessary if you have an ISP.

The Spy uses Eudora in paid mode on his Mac, not because it is markedly better than Apple's Mail but for inertial reasons. After all these years, he's used to it. Besides, it's cross-platform, which automatically scores many points for the developers in his view. Other commercial Mac OS mail programs include Mailsmith from Bare Bones software and Nisus eMail from Nisus software, both of which benefit by partial integration with the respective maker's flagship editing programs. Some web browsers (and these are mostly free; see the next software category) also include an eMail program.

Web browsers

It's interesting to reflect that the World Wide Web is a relative newcomer to the world of computing, being only about a decade old at this writing. The idea behind it is that information providers post specially marked-up documents at their Internet address. A browser client can read these documents, interpret the markup, and correctly format them for viewing on any computer.

Microsoft's Internet Explorer comes with both Windows XP and Mac OS X, and has been the standard browser ever since being made free and driving most of the commercial competition out of business. However, on the Mac side, IE is no longer supported and will not be fixed when security problems appear, so it is better to use Apple's Safari browser. Several products related to the once ubiquitous Netscape browser are also worth considering. Netscape itself is now owned by America Online and still publishes a browser by that name, even though most of the code is now maintained by a volunteer organization known as Mozilla.

For its part, Mozilla publishes several free browsers, including one bearing the organization's own name. Like IE, both Netscape and Mozilla include eMail facilities. However, the Mozilla project also produces Camino (OS X only) and Firefox (cross platform), which are browser only. Mozilla also offers eMail in a standalone product called Thunderbird. In recent months, Firefox has gained a large following due to its small size, high speed, and accuracy in displaying documents.

In addition to these, one might consider low-cost commercial browsers such as iCab and Opera (cross platform) and Omni Web (OS X only, but considered the best by some). The Spy uses a combination of Safari and Firefox in his own machine, and does not recommend IE, as it seems prone to security problems and sometimes does not correctly display pages even though they are coded with standard markup. (MS has its own ideas on how a browser should work, regardless of what standards everyone else adopts.)

Are we there yet?

So far, the Spy has stepped the reader quickly through basic hardware and software acquisition. The beginner should keep in mind that free software is limited to basic mail and web browsing. Microsoft Office, or an individual component, is quite expensive, though if you are a student, your university bookstore may be able to supply it for a reduced rate.

Though it has occupied nearly an entire issue of TNS, this discussion does not exhaust the subject. Next month, a shorter piece on utilities and other software categories (you may be far from finished paying for your system), as well as this year's forecasts for what lies ahead in the industry. Coming up in this series for later months: setting up your own mail and web pages.

Seen in Passing

According to a MacNN article there is new speculation that Steve Jobs is being tabbed as the next CEO of Disney Corp. This makes a lot of sense, in view of Disney's recent dependence on Job's other company (Pixar) for much of its revenue (Nemo and friends). There is, however, no truth to the rumour that the Spy has turned down the chance to replace Jobs at Apple.

--The Northern Spy

Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics at Trinity Western University. He's written two textbooks and several novels, one of which was named best in the science fiction genre for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to ArjayBB.com. Participate and you could win free web hosting from the WebNameHost.net subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Bowker's Booksurge.

NOTE: The terms Metalibrary, Fourth Civilization, New Renaissance, and others, were first exposited in a series of articles appearing in this and others of Rick Sutcliffe's columns in the early 1980s. A full explanation can be found in "The Fourth Civilization-- Technology Society and Ethics" which is available at the URL noted below.


The Northern Spy Home Page: http://www.TheNorthernSpy.com

WebNameHost : http://www.WebNameHost.net

WebNameSource : http://www.WebNameSource.net

Arjay Books: http://www.ArjayBooks.com

Booksurge: http://www.booksurge.com

Fictionwise: http://www.fictionwise.com

The Fourth Civilization (text): http://www.4civ.com/

Open Office: http://www.openoffice.org/

Pegasus Mail: http://www.pmail.com/ pegasus

Eudora: http://eudora.com/

Bare Bones: http://www.barebones.com/index.shtml

Nisus: http://www.nisus.com

Netscape: http://www.netscape.com

Mozilla: http://www.mozilla.org

Omni: http://www.omnigroup.com/

Opera: http://www.opera.com/

iCab: http://www.icab.de/

FileMaker Corp.:http://www.filemaker.com/

4th Dimension: http://www.4d.com/

MacNN Article on Jobs and Disney: http://www.macnn.com/news/26787

This Arjay Enterprises page is Copyright 1983-2006.
The Northern Spy is registered at WebNameSource.com and is hosted by WebnameHost.net.
Last Updated: 2006 11 08