Web Informant #80, 20 August 1997
(The sounds of silence)


"Hello darkness my old friend..."

I have been wrestling with getting sound to work on my various PCs. Two products that came my way have lately giving me fits: Dragon Systems' Naturally Speaking and eFusion's eBridge Interactive Web Response.

Dragon is a speech-to-text voice recognition product: it takes your own speech, after you train it for about 20 minutes with your voice and equipment, and then does a reasonably good job of laying down the text. For someone like myself that spends a lot of time composing at the keyboard, it makes a great deal of sense. eFusion's software is useful for enhancing call-center applications, whereby operators can connect to users within a web browser and converse. I have gotten both products to work, but with many caveats. For example, the Dragon stuff works fine on my home machine, but not on any of the machines at my office. I have no idea why.

But the point of this essay isn't to review both products, but to ask a simple question: why is the longest running legacy of DOS-based systems still haunting us? I refer, of course, to that 39 cent speaker that was included in the first PCs.

All of my troubles with these two products can be traced to that damn speaker. If PCs had first come out with a better sound system, all of my sound-related grief probably wouldn't have happened. Take a look at the Mac, for example: do you ever hear of someone having trouble installing a sound card? Or an application having trouble playing sounds through the speaker? Nope. Even many modern Unix workstations work fine with sound. But try to get this to work on Windows 95 or NT, and be prepared to spend hours tracking down drivers, and switching things in the Multimedia Control Panel dialogs.

"Fools, said I, you do not know..."

If I was smarter about things related to PC-enabled sound, probably I could get this all to work. I've seen some great sound systems on friends' PCs, some that sound better than my stereo system. So I know that this is all possible. And it isn't as if I have lots of choices: indeed, the Dell that I just purchased came with not one but two add-in cards that dealt with sound: the modem and the sound card itself. After wasting time trying to get the Dragon software to work with either card, I pulled them both and put in a fairly recent SoundBlaster card that is one of those with full-duplex speakerphone modems with 32-bit wavetables. But I have no idea of what I am doing, really, and in the end I am still stuck.

The eFusion stuff isn't much better: the company insisted on sending me a fully-configured laptop to do its demo, even though its software runs on any fast PC that has full duplex sound support. When I asked the company representatives why they didn't let me just use my own equipment, they said they had problems with the sound support during the demos. Hey guys: dontcha think this is a product that is a bit early for its time?

"In restless dreams I walked alone ..."

I don't mean to pick on these two vendors: it really has to do with the underlying sound business. Any parent trying to install the latest entertainment software on his PC can attest that the sound support is usually the first thing to fix.

Plug and Play hasn't helped: for one thing, it just identifies the card inside the box, and doesn't make connecting the dots from the software application to the speaker system any easier. NT hasn't made things easier: many sound-related products don't work at all under it. And having fancier modems that can do speakerphone-like things isn't the answer either: there are so many different varieties of modems, interfaces, and setups that picking the right combination is truly painful.

And if you can listen to a music CD on your computer, pop in that old S&G tune. Or read the lyrics here on the web.

Site-keeping and self-promotions dep't

In between installing various sound-related applications, I have been busy writing for other publications. My latest review for Infoworld is called: Webfiler makes getting data online easier than ever, a low-end web/database publishing solution.

My latest article for Web Review is entitled, The Incredible Shrinking Web Server and talks about the trend towards embedding web servers inside various devices. I cover some of the more interesting products such as Agranat's EmWeb and the upcoming Web Zerver from Microtest.

I am back in the pages of Forbes ASAP magazine. The piece originally ran as WI #71, How usable is your web site?

Finally, the advertising-sponsored supplement in Network Computing magazine is out in their mid-August issue. Entitled "Optimizing Your NT Network," it carries articles from Paul Ferrill on backups, Kevin Reichard and Rob Bilson on utilities and case studies by Liz Horwitt. I am hard at work putting together another NT supplement for November, this one will cover web access to corporate data.

David Strom
+1 (516) 944-3407
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entire contents copyright 1997 by David Strom, Inc.