Computer Dictionary

386: No, 486: Oops, Pentium: The only chip to consider if you're thinking of buying a PC. Until Intel ramps up the 686.

640K: The salary the average Wall Street PC analyst pulls in each year.

Algorithm: A catchy 1930 song by George and Ira Gershwin.

Availability: Date when a dozen copies of the beta version will be hurriedly shrink-wrapped for the benefit of the press and the investment community.

Backup: The chore you were really, honestly, going to do the very next thing before you switched drive letters and accidentally copied older, out-of-date versions of you files over all your newer ones at 3 a.m.

Buffer: The only other job - involving a chamois at the car wash - for which most computer store salespeople are qualified.

Bundled software: Free applications like home dentistry packages and Esperanto spelling dictionaries that are thrown in with cheap clones so you think you're getting real value for your money.

CD-ROM: A $30 dollar mechanism in a $300 cabinet that accesses vast quantities of valuable information too slowly to use.

Copy protection: A sly technique employed by hardware vendors to combat software piracy by continually changing the size and compatibility of disk drives (from 160K to 320K to 360K to 1.2MB to 720K to 1.44MB to 2.88MB, etc.).

CP/M: An antiquated operation system from the early days of computing, based on inscrutable prompts like A>, terse commands, and absurdly backward conventions, such as 11-character limits on filenames. Contrasted with today's modern versions of DOS.

Database, flat-file: A program selling for under $500 that most people use to keep lists of names and addresses, etc.

Database, relational/programmable: A program selling for over $500 that most people use to keep lists of names and addresses, etc.

Debugging: The process of uncovering glitches by packaging prerelease software as finished products, then waiting for irate customers to report problems.

Downward compatibility: You really didn't have to spend the money for the upgraded version, since all you use anyway is the old set of features.

End User: One born every minute.

Entry level: Only slightly above most users' heads.

Expanded memory: RAM that is, uh, well, um, different from extended memory.

Expansion slot: The computer didn't come with everything you needed.

Extended memory: RAM that is, uh, well, um, different from expanded memory.

FAX: Originally a last resort for procrastinators who missed the final Federal Express pickup; these days, an expensive way to order lunch from the pizza place around the corner.

Firmware: Software with permanent bugs hardwired into it.

Icon: One picture is worth a thousand lawsuits. Or, as Shakespeare might have put it, "He who steals my trash better have a large purse.

Installation routine: A process employed by many applications to overwrite and thereby trash the user's existing and painstakingly created AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS files

Interface, character-based: A way of presenting information to the user that's every bit as good as a user interface except in the areas of readability, ease of use, intuitiveness, and productivity.

Interface, graphic user (GUI): An increasingly popular way of presenting information to the user, originally designed by Xerox PARC and now being adopted by dozens of competitors; otherwise known as the Trial Attorney Full Employment Act.

Laptop: A dinky keyboard wedded to a lousy LCD screen, all with bad battery life.

Live links: A clever system that lets you unknowingly corrupt data in lots of separate files at the same time.

Low-bandwidth: The process of talking to a corporate press relations official. (Question: How many IBM PR types does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: We'll have to get back to you on that.)

Nanosecond: The time it takes after your warranty expires for your hard disk to start making a sound like a monkey wrench in a blender.

NiCad battery: A cell that powers a laptop long enough to let you do three solid hours of work, then dies before you're ready to save any of it to disk.

Open system: Made up of parts from different manufacturers so that, when you crash, each vendor can blame the others.

Optional: It should have come free, but someone in the marketing department ran 1-2-3 and figured they'd double their profits this way.

Parity: A ninth memory bit that one time in nine will crash an otherwise perfectly functioning system when it detects an error in itself.

Partition: A wall you have to build around a noisy dot matrix printer that makes only slightly less noise than a tree chipper.

Point-and-shoot: You mean you'd rather click on a menu choice than have to type things like DEVICE=DOSUTSDRIVER.SYS /D:0 /T:80 /S:15 /H:2 /F:1 ?

Power Surge: What an MIS director feels when he denies you access to your own database.

Power user: Someone who's read the manual all the way through once.

Productivity: Printing out 30 different versions of your document before getting the spacing correct.

Real-time clock: A 50-dollar option based on a five-cent chip.

SAA: Silly And Awkward.

Shell: A clumsy program that forces users to stumble through ten menus to get anything done instead of typing a simple three-character command.

Shock-mounted: Make sure you're sitting down when you ask the price.

Spreadsheet: Sophisticated software that can be used as a database, rudimentary word processor, graphing program, and, in a pinch, a ledger.

Stack: The place in the corner of the room where you pile unopened software manuals.

Standard: Manufactured by the company that does the flashiest advertising.

Support: Fast, simple, courteous, friendly, accurate help available to any user who happens to work for any company that bought 1,000 copies of the product.

Throughput: What you feel like doing with your foot and your computer screen after you see the message "General Failure Error Reading Drive C:".

Toll-free hotline: An AT&T busy-signal test number.

Toner cartridge: A device to refill laser printers; invented by the Association of American Dry Cleaners.

Torture test: Everyone - from the FedEx guy to the clerk who opened the box to the trainee who executed the speed test - accidentally dropped it.

Tutorial: A program that forces you to sit through lessons on every last obscure and little-used feature of an application while ignoring overall fundamental tricks that would make you far more productive.

Unix, year of: See Calendar, perpetual.

Value-added: A lot more expensive.

Virus: Commonly, the belief of incompetent users that some mysterious external force is to blame for their mistakes at the keyboard.

Workstation: Any PC that sells for more than $10,000.

XT: All the computer that most users who just type letters and run typical spreadsheets will ever need, even though a 386 machine will reformat their text a whole tenth of a second faster.