Archives for June 2008

Looking back at Microsoft

With Bill Gates stepping down from his position running Microsoft, it’s quite interesting to take a look at how I have come into contact with their products over the years.

The very first computers that I had anything to do with came from Texas Instruments, Sinclair, BBC/Acorn and Research Machines – and none of them had anything to do with software from Microsoft. As it happened, some software for the Sinclair computers was written by Psion, who I later worked for myself.

But at some stage I came into contact with something called MS-DOS, although it may have been some form of PC-DOS on an IBM PC at the time. For many years that was probably the only piece of Microsoft software that I used regularly. At school we did have Windows 1.0 available and Word (for DOS) 5.0, but I don’t remember using them much.

Whilst at university my laptop (with 640K of RAM) ran on DOS 3.x, the university PCs and our computer at home ran on DOS 5.0 and Windows 3.1 or 3.11. It was not until I spent a year as a student in Germany that I really had much contact with Microsoft Office – Version 4.3 (ie. Word for Windows 2.0).

Ironically I probably had most of my contact with the inner workings of any Microsoft products during my time at Psion in Germany – usually working out why some file or calendar would not convert or synchronise with Microsoft Office products, or why the palmtop was not connecting properly to a new release of Windows.

These days the operating system has got much more complex – there is just so much to learn about Windows XP and Vista, not to mention and of the server operating systems. But with so much now web-based, the trend has reverted to simpler applications.

Products like OpenOffice.org and Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird have changed the way home users use their software, with Microsoft Outlook being something I normally only see in a corporate environment.

But whatever you may think about Microsoft’s software policies, there is one thing I definitely admire Mr. Gates for: unlike many IT managers out there, he started “hands-on” – he programmed computers, he wrote code for the company’s first products and grew from there.  He is not someone brought in “just” to run the company, but knows the background of what he is talking about.

When I look at what IT students study today and compare it with what I studied in the 1990s, I am sometimes horrified how little is taught about the “basics”.  I learnt how to structure a database and code it, I didn’t just click it together in a front end.  I learnt about how and why things happened, and what consequences actions could have.  I was studying at a time when memory was still a scarce and often restricted commodity – something many of today’s software developers would do well to remember.

I still have that laptop with 640K of RAM, no hard disc and a double disc drive. I serves as a good reminder of the days when finding a configuration problem meant looking from an INI-file and not searching the Windows registry. When you had to tell a word processor to start and stop formatting a piece of text, eg. bold, and didn’t see the end result until it appeared on the printer. When a backup of my data meant one or two floppy discs, and not one or two DVDs.

Das Fräulein vom Amt

Das Fräulein vom Amt was the name given to the telephone operators at the beginning of the last century.

Young women were employed to connect phone calls in the days before direct dialling as their high voices carried better on the early telephone wires than the lower men’s voices. They did this by connecting sockets on a so-called Klappenschrank.

Whilst the need for this service reduced with the introduction of direct dialling, many calls to other countries were still connected manually and it was possible to reserve a time for a particular call in advance.

The job services in the form of the Telefonistin in emergency call centres and on the switchboard of large companies.

To hear a simple explanation and a short discussion in German, listen to the podcast:

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How to pay for things in Germany

Today in the Monday Podcast I talk about how to pay for things in Germany.

Cash still rules in many parts of the country and people and some businesses are vary wary of paying with cards.

Restaurants, for example, often prefer you to pay cash. Supermarkets accept ec-cards – a debit card linked to your bank account. But only larger businesses such as petrol stations, out-of-town supermarkets and shops in larger cities such as Frankfurt will normally accept credit cards.

As Germany no longer issues eurocheques, payments between private people are often done by bank transfer – called Überweisung.

Paying bills can be done with an Überweisung but often you will be required to agree to direct debit – Einzugsermächtigung or Lastschrift. Except in special circumstances you can require the bank to return any money within six weeks that has been wrongly taking using this method.

If you order goods online you may be required to pay in advance – Vorkasse – but some online shops will send their goods by Nachname, meaning that you pay the postman when the goods arrive.

To find out more, listen to the podcast:

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(Press the “play” button to listen to the podcast)

Download the MP3 file | Comment in the forum

Subscribe to the podcast | Listen by telephone

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