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Plain talk about computers, Part 1

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Plain talk about computers, Part 1

Technofile for April 27, 1997

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1997, The Syracuse Newspapers

It's time for some plain talk about computers, this week and next. If you find computers baffling, stick with me.

We'll start by getting the jargon out of the way.

"PC" means personal computer, but it actually stands for the kind of personal computer IBM invented. So that's why you hear people talk about "IBM-compatible" computers PCs made by other companies that are like the ones made by IBM. More than 2,000 companies make PCs worldwide, and IBM is just one of a few dozen really big PC manufacturers these days.

The only other kind of computer widely used in homes is the Macintosh. It's not like IBM's PC. Despite what anyone tells you, it doesn't matter whether you use a PC or a Mac. But you need to know that they work differently. If you have a Mac, you need Mac software; if you have a PC, you need PC software.

"Software" is jargon for instructions that tell computers what to do. Software is "soft" (unlike hardware) because you can't touch it. It's like a set of directions turn left, go two miles, turn right at the light written in a language a computer can understand. Usually, these "directions" are stored on a magnetic disk, either a small one that can fit in your pocket or a larger one you can't see that's inside the computer.

The small one has a hard plastic cover, but the disk itself is bendable, so it's called a "floppy" disk. The bigger one isn't bendable, and it's called a "hard" disk.

These instructions won't do any good if they're just lying around loose. So they're strung together into programs. Just like TV programs, software programs have a point where they stop and a point where they end, with anything imaginable in between.

Programs need to be organized, too. They're put in the computer's version of a filing cabinet. They're kept in computer files and computer folders.

You've probably seen something on your computer screen that looks like a real folder. If you click your mouse button twice called double clicking when the pointer is on top of a computer folder, the folder opens up so you can see what's inside it. (You might even see more folders inside the first folder. There's no limit.)

This idea of using a computer mouse to "open" something runs pretty deep in the computer world. Even programs can be opened in fact, that's the word all the software companies use. When you "open" a program, you get it going. You run it, in other words.

Another thing you open on a computer is a window. These days, every program uses a window in one way or another. Sometimes the window is the full size of your screen and sometimes it's very small.

A window is a box. "Window" is a better term than "box" because real windows give you a view of things, and computer windows do, too. You can view a letter to Aunt Nellie or a page on the World Wide Web or just about anything else.

A window usually has a bar along the top that works a little like a billboard (because it advertises the program) and a lot like a grab handle (because it lets you move the window). Move the window by putting the mouse pointer on top of that bar and holding the mouse button down while you move the mouse. The window travels right along with your pointer.

The jargon for the part of the window that works like a grab handle is "title bar" or "menu bar."

This isn't so hard, is it? Next week we'll dig a little deeper. I promise it will be painless.

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