Individual route to personal success: Mihir Bose hacks through the jargon jungle to enter the 'real world' of fast-track computing

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Seven years with my Amstrad had been like travelling on a steam train along a branch line while the TGVs of personal computers thundered past on the main line. My machine was not compatible with anything else and I was aware I had a steep learning curve when I joined the real world of PCs and Apple Macs.

What I was not prepared for was the realisation that while personal computers were introducing millions of people to wordprocessing and other electronic wonders, the computer industry remained geared to serving the corporate world. Caring for individuals was, and is, an after-thought.

To illustrate: as I write this I have in front of me a hotline support registration card from Lotus, one of the top three software companies in the world. It offers all sorts of goodies, but to fill it in properly I would have to invent a company name, give myself a job title and specify a department. Another form, also part of my software package, asks me to tick boxes for my company turnover, ranging from less than a dollars 1m to more than dollars 100m. How I wish my turnover was one- tenth of that. My problems should have been solved by the magazines that serve the industry. But, apart from suggesting that even in this recession some magazines have prospered, they were as foreign as my machine was proving to be.

The answer came quite accidentally one Sunday afternoon when a shop assistant in a business store suggested the solution lay in having a laptop as my main machine. The bigger the car or the television set the more you pay, but in the world of PCs, a laptop or notebook computer may be a quarter of the size of a desktop but costs twice as much.

In choosing a computer I was faced with a new problem. Personal computers, keen to provide an add-on in these recessionary times, now come loaded with software packages. In terms of value-for-money that is laudable, but this meant making choices between software packages I knew nothing about. In choosing my hardware - Viglen Dossier - I also had to decide between Ami Pro and Lotus 1-2-3 or Microsoft Word and Excel, both packages offering a wordprocessor and spreadsheet. When I asked which software was better the salesman looked at me as if I was loopy, then said: 'If you haven't used either, then either is good.' I chose Ami Pro but I might just as well have used a pin.

The Viglen salesman had told me that my system would come all ready to use. All I had to do was switch it on. But without any knowledge of the software and in spite of reading the manual several times, I was no wiser. Finally, I hired a consultant - chosen at random from the Ham and High in north London - to get me going. He did not know Ami Pro, but knew his way around the Microsoft Windows operting system and got me started, at a cost of pounds 150.

The real way to make progress would mean going on an Ami Pro course, except that a two-day course can cost nearly pounds 460 - plus, if you are self-employed, loss of income over that period - and is clearly geared for the corporate customer. One course salesman was so surprised I was an individual that he very nearly offered me a discount.

My mistake had been to seek answers to electronic media through the written one. The real solution lay in the electronic screen, via a fax modem connected to the computer. The Zoom fax modem, at pounds 200, is one of the first affordable, legal and fast fax modems in this country. Its use could not be simpler. With the help of a manual, which put to shame most of those issued by computer manufacturers, operating it proved easy. Most fascinating was to watch the colours flash on the modem as the fax was transmitted from my screen.

The fax modem also introduced me to Compuserve, the information network, which is like the Harrods of the computer world. In one corner was someone who could help me answer problems encountered by me as I connected my machine. In other corners were access to information which made me feel I had been released from a closed world. Using Compuserve does make you feel that Marshall McLuhan's global village is a reality.

True there is an American bias. This meant I could get more information about the Brooklyn Dodgers than Manchester United, and it is not cheap. Such is the temptation in using a club that allows you to become part of such an exclusive global order that it is easy to forget the cost. But having said that the introduction to Compuserve through the fax machine has meant that I no longer feel as ignorant or as ill-at-ease with my PC. Clearly, the answer to any newcomer would be to seek answers through the PC. It is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation - you need the answers to choose the PC, but you can only get the answers after choosing the PC.

The Zoom is available from Express Technology (telephone 0784-483843).

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