ai

ai ...is for new customers of Ansible Information Ltd -- a legal fiction concealing the identities of two obscure novelists, David Langford and Christopher Priest. Published from: 94 London Road, Reading, Berkshire, RG1 5AU, U.K. Revised: March 1990.

Epigraph: "If what we have written brings happiness to any sad heart we shall not have laboured in vain. But we want the money too." (E.Nesbit, The Treasure Seekers)


IN WHICH WE GO DOWN IN FLAMES

Is our twitting of "competitors" in the computer world a bit unsavoury? Is it unfair to make fun of these basically decent chaps who are just trying to run a business? Dog eat dog, and all that....

We make fun of certain people for sound reasons. The computer industry is a terrible place for two relatively innocent book writers to have found themselves. We used to think publishers were ruthless and mercenary, but compared with the computer industry they are angels of mercy. The problem is that there's too much money sloshing around. A hardback publisher's product retails for £13, and probably sells a couple of thousand copies; multiply these figures by about 40 for a conservative comparison with the big software world, and by 100 for a comparison with hardware. Money, like power, corrupts. The relative poverty of publishing encourages the people who work in it to be polite, trained, literate, committed and refreshingly undeluded. Are these the words that spring to mind when you think about computers? Taken as a whole, the computer industry is (let's put it mildly) arrogant, inefficient, untrained, greedy ... and patronizing. (What other business routinely refers to its customers as "end users"?) In the sections that follow we report some true stories illustrating the thesis... but first let's generalize a little.

Computer shops. These fall into two types. (1) The first kind of shop is in the "tasteful" style of a open-plan office: the only computers in sight are a discreet distance away, and software boxes stand on uncrowded shelves. There are spotlights, potted palms, furniture made of stainless steel. A suited personage with a folder descends on you as you enter and enquires after your business. No sordid hands-on experience until you have been thoroughly counselled (i.e., they've found out how much you have to spend), and then they charge you so much your eyes will water. Promises of "support" sound plausible, and they're insistently reiterated ... they're also frequently untrue. (2) The other kind of shop also sells televisions, hi-fis and answering machines. They have big cardboard boxes containing hardware stacked on high shelves. Loud music blares at you continually. The staff are all louts. The computers are grimy, and always have "Abort Retry or Ignore?" on the screen. The shop's understanding of the word "support" is that the least loutish of the shop assistants will prop open the door with a heel as you drag a box into the street.

Computer magazines. Social systems depend on a free press as a regulator. A free press should not only report news but also question authority, expose rackets, protect the weak and campaign for a better world. For these reasons alone the computer press has proved itself deficient. There are honourable exceptions, but most magazines toady to the big companies, give their products free publicity splashes irrespective of quality, and shun rather than explore the new or unknown. They report rumours as news. They often review unfinished versions of software and machines (e.g., Personal Computer World favourably reviewed the Cambridge Z88 in March 1987, months before it was even working -- impartially tapping their fingers on a wooden lash-up hooked into a BBC Master; Practical Computing, February 1988, glowingly reviewed the Apple Mac version of WordPerfect on the basis of a demonstration of a test version; and with WordPerfect 5.0 there was a striking contrast between the magazine chorus of "Gosh, wow, all these amazing new features!" and professional writers' moans about how much slower and harder the program actually was to use.).

The only moral contribution most computer papers make is an occasional fulmination about the outrageously high prices of software. They are double dealers, though: part of the reason software is expensive is because of the swingeing rates charged by these same people for advertising space.

Computer manufacturers. They conceal their prices until the last possible moment. They bundle ridiculous software front ends with their machines. They amend specifications and abandon models without regard to their customers. They refuse software upgrades to legitimate users. They delegate everything to a dealer network that exists largely in the imagination. They overcharge for repairs. They ape each other's "standards" slavishly, so that in the end your only choice is between prices.

And the big Software Companies...?

a.

A potential WordPerfect customer rang to ask what our current price was. We duly told her.

She said, "Do you realize that that is more than the recommended retail price?"

We didn't, and said so. After all, everywhere you looked the retail price was announced as £425. (Plus p&p, plus VAT.) On this basis, our price of well under £300 represented a considerable saving ... the more so, we feel, as we give full support.

The story came out. The lady, confused by the numerous prices quoted for WordPerfect, had phoned Sentinel Software (as it was in those days before the pretentious name-change to WordPerfect UK Ltd) and asked them what the right sort of price should be. This was the answer:

"We think a net price of £250 is about right," said Sentinel's omniscient spokesperson, after the young lady had been on hold for half an hour, listening attentively to the Blue Danube Waltz. "If you pay too much below that, you're not going to get any support, and the goods might be of dubious origin. If you pay too much above that, you're paying more than the going rate."

We fell into introspective silence when we heard this.

Ansible Information are Class I WordPerfect dealers. We have fulfilled Sentinel's conditions to the letter: we hold a demonstration copy of the program, and at least one saleable copy, we have sent staff on the WordPerfect training course, and we follow up "sales leads" within two days of receipt (indeed, within one day of receipt).

As Class I WordPerfect dealers, we were entitled to what Sentinel/WordPerfect claimed with some massaging of facts to be the maximum discount: 40%. They therefore charged us £425 less 40%: £255 per copy of WordPerfect. And then told our potential customers that the most they should pay is £5.00 less than our trade price.


b.

As some of our customers may recall, we once ran ad hoc training courses to which we gave the jolly title "Ansible Crash Course". Initially the course took a day, and it cost £100 per person. It generally took place because the customer had been using software without, it was felt, getting the best from it. Every Crash Course we gave was about other people's software: DOS, WordPerfect, assembler, Turbo Pascal, SuperWriter.... We would feel uncomfortable charging all that money to impart training in something we'd written ourselves and, more to the point, had documented ourselves.

Even so, from time to time we wondered whether our daily rate wasn't excessive. But we knew how tiring such a day can be, and how long a convalescence is needed afterwards. The £100 barely covered the anguish; indeed we later bumped the rate to £250 without lessening the demand (and nowadays Crash Courses are given only when Ansible feels insanely optimistic and/or broke).

We were, therefore, fascinated when we recently came across a rate card for a similar enterprise, this one run by Computer Associates. This is the Slough-based firm who produce the SuperCalc series (including SuperWriter).

The training courses they run are about their own software products, and are offered unblushingly. Of course, we make no imputations about the quality of either their programs or documentation, but if you need a refresher course in SuperCalc 4, Computer Associates are the people to approach.

They charge £85.00.

An hour.

(Plus expenses.)


c.

[The following anecdote was pirated from a 1988 ai and printed in garbled form by fearless Computer Weekly, which decided to censor the company name involved....]

Somebody telephoned us with a distinctive cockney accent. "'Ere," he said. "Do you do soffware for the Amstrad PC1512?"

"Well," we replied, "we do have software that runs on that machine."

"But do you write soffware for the Amstrad models?"

We explained that we produce software for all IBM compatibles. Warming to our theme, we added that the only differences between Amstrads and other clones are that Amstrads are more grottily made, and that Amstrad screens flicker when you move your eyes --

"Listen, son," said our caller, cutting in. "You don't know 'oo you're talkin' to, do you?"

"No. Who are you?"

"This" (dramatic pause) "is Amstrad."

"Oh," we said. "In which case, we were going to say the keyboard is plasticky, and the tops of the keys wear off."

"What we want, sunshine," said our unidentified caller, "is copies of all your Amstrad soffware."

"Fine," we said. "Kindly enclose payment with order."

"You obviously didn't 'ear wot I said. This is AMSTRAD."

"You obviously didn't hear what I said," we said.

"We don't PAY for soffware!"

"That's a coincidence. We don't GIVE IT AWAY."

"Listen, we didn't become millionaires by buying soffware from people like you!"

"You took the words right out of my mouth."

"You fink about it, sunshine," said our caller. "And when you've fought about it, you get your soffware in the mail to us."

So we went away and thought about this irresistible financial proposal, until, consumed by fires of apathy, we decided it was an offer we could afford to refuse.


d.

Here's another telephone conversation:

"Is that Ansible Information, and do you know anything about Apricots?"

"Yes, and yes."

"Oh, thank God! I've been trying to get support from Apricot PLC but after calling seventeen different phone numbers they told me they don't deal with end users and that I have to approach my dealer but my dealer went out of business last year and the only other dealers I can find tell me that I have to approach Apricot PLC and after calling seventeen different numbers...."

If this sounds rather familiar to you, consider how we feel about it. We have heard this (or something very like it) hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times in the last three years. We remain sympathetic, but it is very, very familiar.

This issue of ai is perhaps the place to record a singular fact. In all the time we have been in business we have never heard a single good word said about Apricot PLC's public relations. Most people agree that they make or at least made terrific machines. (There is less enthusiasm for the F series with its increasingly dodgy disk drives, we admit; and some correspondents have been positively blasphemous about their Portables.) But everyone is unanimous about Apricot's wonderful customer support service. Oh, and WordPerfect UK's too.


e.

Sometimes you can encourage a really dim bureaucrat to apply the egg with a delicate touch to his own face....

Because of Sentinel/WordPerfect UK's insane pricing policy (see item 1, above) we toook to obtaining WordPerfect 4.2 elsewhere. (Authorized copies, coming less directly from the same original source, as a part of said insane pricing policy.) As the account between Sentinel and Ansible Information dwindled to a vestige of its former self, and possibly because they were annoyed with us after failing to sue us (see notes on Paragon, below), they decided to cancel our credit arrangements with them.

One day we received a very high-handed, unsigned note informing us of this. We were pretty irritated with them too; they had just wasted three months of our time. So, because it was Christmas, we decided to play a little joke on them.... We felt that as we had originally had to apply to them to obtain credit, they should now have to apply to us to withdraw it. We spent half an hour joyfully making up a cod application form, asking all sorts of impertinent questions about bank accounts and directors' names, and reasons for their "application". We made three copies, on differently coloured pieces of paper, and sent them to the Sentinel office, asking for the top two copies to be returned.

To help them get the joke, we signed our letter "H. Gernsback", the name of a very famous, very bad, very dead science fiction writer.

Soon the application form came back. It had been duly bonked with an official rubber stamp, conscientiously filled in with the confidential information requested, and signed in duplicate by a senior member of staff, just as Mr Gernsback had asked....

(PS. This became an annual ritual -- after each year in which we didn't order from them and most certainly don't apply for credit, WordPerfect UK cancelled our credit again. To mark the 1988 anniversary they also sent a terrifying invoice all covered with computer-printed numbers and references. In the great tradition of computer wallydom, the most interesting number was the actual amount invoiced. Zero pounds. Plus VAT.)

Enough! These stories, and dozens more like them, have cheered us through those long days when the phone rings and rings. Yes, people are forgivably foolish, and human mistakes happen, and disasters can occur in even the best-ordered systems. (Without claiming to be at all well organized, we must admit to occasional disasters ourselves: illness, machine failure, and the perennial delays of the post office.) But it's hard not to enjoy seeing pompous people fall on their bottoms, and there is something unpardonable about all this when you know -- or find out -- how much money there is for high flyers in this consistently appalling industry. (The Chairman of Apricot PLC was paid £155,000 a couple of years ago; in February 1988 Sentinel were advertising for sales executives at a basic salary of £30,000 p.a.)


THE GREAT VIRUS PANIC

Is your computer at risk from electronic AIDS? A couple of years ago, this newsletter examined the state of play in software viruses, marvelled that the wretched things were in fact so easy to write for anyone with a shred of expertise, and concluded as follows:

Simple precautions are still adequate. Be cautious of disks, especially boot disks, from unknown sources. Keep several generations of backups. Watch for odd messages (e.g. if DIR gives an error on a write-protected floppy, something nasty may be trying to copy itself across).

"When you sleep with a public domain disk, you sleep with all its old mates."

In other words, we advised caution and not panic. Were we perhaps too complacent, in view of developments in 1989 -- that is, the release of the notorious AIDS disk with much resulting chaos and dread? We don't think so.

Ansible Information was sent a copy of the "AIDS Information Introductory Diskette", just like 20,000 other people and companies. CP, being a literary sort of chap, read the accompanying licence information and instantly smelt a rat: the tiny print contained veiled warnings about not running the software even once unless prepared to pay unspecified amounts or suffer penalties like "your microcomputer will stop functioning normally".

DL, being technologically fearless, probed the disk itself by sophisticated use of the DIR command and found an INSTALL.EXE file so colossal as to rouse immediate suspicion. Neither of us ran the programs. Anyone who did, we reckoned, would need his or her head examined.

As it turned out, plenty of people came into this last category, and great ululations of woe were heard up and down the country as hard disk data was locked away from its users, to the accompaniment of on-screen demands for ransom before sanity could be restored.

Apparently this country is filled with innocents who would rush to open an interestingly ticking parcel, or swallow an anonymous pill to find out what it does....

Despite the reign of terror it caused, the AIDS "trojan horse" wasn't even a particularly clever piece of programming: it had been fudged up in BASIC, it lacked the self-replicating ingenuity of a true virus, and it looked sinister right from the start.


NOTES FROM THE WORKBENCH

As noted elsewhere, writers love to talk about vaguely macho-sounding things like workshops. Hear the clash of hammer on chisel, feel the white heat of the furnace, smell that honest sweat! Writers race for deadlines, they hack their path through novelistic blockbusters... all useful evasions of the fact that writing consists of sitting on one's bottom, growing ever more pale and flabby with the passing years. Computer folk have developed a similar terminology to disguise their deeply sedentary obsessions: hacking is found in this world too, and furtive acts of illicit copyright violation are referred to in virile terms as copy-breaking or -busting. Systems hang up not in ominous silence but with a resounding crash, and a feeble poke at the reset button sounds far more energetic when translated into a mighty swing of one's doubtless massively studded boot. Ah, machismo. But we digress....

SCREEN DUMPS are another of those violent-sounding activities. This means getting a print-out of the current screen appearance by pressing some magic key: PRINT on earlier Apricot keyboards, SHIFT PRINT on the later default keyboard, SHIFT PRT SC on IBM clones, EXTRA PTR on the Amstrad PCW. (Apricot users should see under BLOCKFF on our product list, below.) The first three normally give a text image of the screen; the last is especially nifty because -- since the PCW comes with its own dedicated printer, whose graphics abilities are thus known to the operating system -- you get a dot-by-dot copy of whatever text, graphics and funny characters might be on the screen. (The facility vanished in early versions of LocoScript 2, owing to a cock-up -- later corrected, so ask Locomotive for an upgrade if required.) IBM users normally get a GRAPHICS program thrown in with DOS, to achieve this effect. Apricot users can use "Black Hole" (unsupported) software from Apricot themselves.

SCRNCOPY.COM is the "Black Hole" program, and despite being fiddly to instal works quite well. You need to load one of those weird graphics extension packages, appropriate to your machine: 800400EG.EXE (PC/Xi/Xen) or 640200EG.EXE (F series, except old unmodified F1s). Then you run SCRNCOPY followed by the name of one of the six printer drivers supplied. With their usual transcendent naffness, Apricot PLC have provided driver files for "Apricot Writer" printers only, it being up to punters to find one which makes their real-world printer work. (SCRNCOPY AW22.PRD does the trick for Epsons.) After which, pressing CONTROL PRINT at any time causes a dot-by-dot graphics image to print out. Yes, we now supply the whole package on our public domain list.

SCRNCOPY is also supposed to activate the hitherto duff command LCOPY within GWBASIC itself. This didn't work for us, but we have a simple substitute (a few lines of GWBASIC with built-in machine code) if you need one.

SORTING DIRECTORIES: old ASD users all have the public domain SORTDISK.COM. This failed with MS-DOS 3, because SORTDISK insists on checking that it's running under MS-DOS 2 (to prevent disaster with MS-DOS 1!). We patched the program for DOS 3, and this version now appears on ASD and our public domain list. It works with IBMs too, but beware! Shuffling files around on an IBM "boot" disk can cause things to come unstuck: DL spent some nasty hours backing up, reformatting and restoring a 20MB hard disk which wouldn't boot after being sorted.... No, we still haven't written a program to sort files in subdirectories. This is one of those jobs currently listed in the category "it could be done but Oh God". One of Peter Norton's utility programs does the job, on IBMs at least, and we're rather surprised by the number of people who send us copies and claim it's "public domain". Tut.

A NOTE ON BATCH FILES. MS-DOS masters will know this trick, but it's always poorly documented and often comes as a surprise. By invoking COMMAND.COM with the obscure /C parameter, you can call one batch file from another and have control revert to the appropriate place in the first batch file when the second has finished -- just like a subroutine call in a real program. Thus the line COMMAND/C FRED would run FRED.BAT, and you can also pass the original batch file's command line parameters to the subsidiary one's by e.g. COMMAND/C FRED %1 %2 %3 %4....

"Submit" files are the CP/M equivalent of batch files, the difference which causes most grief being that they work by creating temporary disk files. This means that if you sensibly write-protect a CP/M start-up disk which automatically loads a program (e.g. AnsibleIndex), the automatic loading fails with a horrid "Retry, Ignore or Cancel". Write-protect your cherished master disk, but not the copy you work with.


AN APPEAL TO YOUR BETTER NATURE

If you're an old Ansible customer you may just remember the days when our telephone was sometimes not engaged and our literature said, "Please do not telephone us unless it's a real emergency." We are sorry to say that this has had to change. Nowadays the phone is always engaged and CP can only escape to eat and sleep by hooking up the much-loathed answering machine. And nowadays the support sheet enclosed with our products (PLEASE READ THIS!) has to say, effectively, "Don't phone us for support."

As of old, Ansible Information over-extends us badly. If you need help/ advice/ information, a detailed letter which explains your problem (and which is accompanied by a disk carrying the problem program and/or files) will receive a considered response, usually within a few days. A phonecall seems quicker, but this is deceptive: often we must research answers to the most simple-seeming enquiries, and many problems can't be diagnosed at all without copies of the relevant programs or files.

Also.... We do not offer any hardware support whatever; we are not a hardware company. When a power supply fails or a monitor goes bang, we are as helpless as anyone: we call in hardware experts like TP Group.

We do not support software written by other firms, with the sole exception of WordPerfect 4.2 (and only then if it was bought from us). For example, we didn't write DOS; we sympathize with people who on acquiring their first hard disk machine are confronted with its maze of subdirectories; we have even written a booklet -- Ordinary Mortals -- to provide a simple introduction, and scores of books claiming to make DOS simple are available in any big bookshop. Can you wonder that we are unhappy when someone rings, outside office hours, blaming all his difficulties with DOS on us, and expecting to be talked at length through the problem, free of charge? This, we fear, happens too often. We have to call a halt.

We do not provide support for public domain software, other than as set out in the catalogue we supply. Three times in one week we received calls that began, "I know you don't support public domain software, but...."

We do not keep a showroom open to the public at either Ansible address: these are private houses, and we deal only via mail/telephone order. No visitors, please.

If the sternness of this section seems intimidating... we do like to hear from you, but letters are so much less intrusive. We have come to think of many customers as friends, but sometimes well-meaning friends can cause as much disruption as bovver boys throwing bricks at the windows. (It is also sordidly true that whenever we spend time on the phone we lose valuable orders from people who can't get through to place them. If we go out of business as a result we'll be offering no support at all, written or otherwise, for anyone.)


THE MIGHTY ANSIBLE LIST

[... has changed a good deal. The following product is no longer available, but its history may still be interesting!]

Paragon [all Apricots and IBM-compatibles]

This supersedes the "Ansible WordPerfect Disk" which roused the ire of legal eagles at WordPerfect UK.

They accused us of [1] Taking Their Name In Vain (or, rather, WordPerfect's name), [2] Passing Off, [3] Violating Copyright By Altering WordPerfect Program Code, and [4] Selling An Illicitly Modified Version Of The WP Lexicon. Lawsuits were threatened. Our suggestion that our disk actually increased the WP 4.2 market by (amongst other things) making the program run on the Apricot F series, was taken as irrelevant malarky and tended to prove we had Gone Too Far.

Since we had consciously refrained from any of the illegal acts of which we were accused (doing so for reasons of habitual ethics), the issue boiled down to changing the name -- not that we felt in the wrong, but a company consisting of two routinely impoverished writers is in no position to oppose actions, however misguided, which are backed by the colossal resources of WordPerfect Corporation. Various legally spotless names were mooted: Ansible Word Perfect Disk (note the space), Ansible W*rdP*rf*ct Disk (note the tone of irritation entering the proceedings), Triffic (irritation taking hold), Wally (irritation in full control) and The Disk WordPerfect Corporation Paid A Lawyer Large Sums Of Money To Stop Us Naming. Meanwhile, their legal advisers came up with the extremely catchy suggestion Ansible Disk For Use With The WordPerfect Software (they too must have been tired of it all, but unlike us were being paid for it). Three months slipped by while this nonsense ran its course.

In the end we settled on the name PARAGON.

Both Apricot and IBM versions of PARAGON for WordPerfect 4.2 contain a macro editor (an author who shall be nameless reported that he'd thrown out the "WordPerfect Library" macro editor -- IBMs only -- in favour of our more "user-friendly" one), an on-screen clock, stripped-down spelling lexicons, a large selection of macros, a simplified cursor-tinkering utility, and AIHELP. This last (not for Apricot F series machines) is [...] a pop-up menu program which automates a large number of the more fiddly WordPerfect key sequences, and which can to some extent be user-customized. A conversion program for old SuperWriter files comes on the Apricot disk and can be had as a free extra for the IBM one. Each version also has some machine-specific programs: make your IBM's keys click, make the Amstrad PC's extra DEL key work in WP, make WP 4.2 run without glitches on Apricot F machines, etc.

(By the way... even after examining all this software, the UK agents carried on telling enquirers the untruth that WordPerfect cannot be run on the Apricot F series. Better to lose a sale than concede a point to Ansible.)