For the last few years, the best software minds in the business have been trying desperately to make computers easier to use.
The result of all this work is the Graphical User Interface, or GUI (pronounced Gooey). A GUI replaces the arcane set of pidgin English commands that computers once used with an image of a desktop.
On the desktop are pictures, or icons, that represent programs or data files. At the top of the screen is a menu bar containing basic commands. Using a pointing device called a mouse that moves an arrow around the screen, you just point at something and click a mouse button.
If you point at a program icon and click, the program runs. If you point at an icon representing your letter to Aunt Rhoda, your word processor runs and loads the letter. If you point at a command, a menu drops down, giving you a choice of things to do.
In theory and practice, it's simple and intuitive. If personal computers had started out with GUIs, a lot more people would use PCs today.
Unfortunately, the IBM-compatibles that make up 90 percent of the PCs in use today weren't born with GUIs. They were born with DOS, an old-fashioned operating system that virtually corners the market on hostility to users.
The Apple Macintosh was born with a GUI. It's a delight to use. But it's relatively expensive and incompatible with the DOS world.
The phenomenal success of Microsoft Windows, a graphical environment for DOS which has sold a million copies in six months, shows how hungry DOS users are for an environment that makes their computers easy to use.
The problem is that Windows needs an expensive machine with an 80386 microprocessor and four megabytes of memory to run at an acceptable speed.
This is why GeoWorks Ensemble just might make it. The $199.95 Ensemble is a new GUI and a package of basic applications for IBM-compatibles that will run on older XT and AT-class computers, as well as the newest hot rods.
Ensemble is beautiful to behold, easy to use and in many respects friendlier than Windows. It won't perform as many tricks with memory, but what it does, it does well. And it's fast -- two to three times as fast as Windows, by my reckoning.
Its word processing and graphics applications coax beautiful output from even the lowliest dot matrix printers. And unlike Windows, Ensemble shows you on the screen exactly what you get when you print.
Ensemble is definitely not a Windows clone. While most GUI's are similar, Ensemble uses the Motif model found on many high-end graphic workstations. If you've used Windows, you'll find it easy to pick up. If you haven't used Windows, the Motif model is probably easier to learn.
The GeoWorks environment gives you two ways of looking at things. There's a World Directory, which shows the programs you have available, and a Document directory, which shows the documents on your disk.
Unlike Windows, which requires that you run a slow and clunky file manager to see your documents, Ensemble lets you switch vTC between views with a single mouse click.
Ensemble comes with a suite of basic applications designed for new users, including a word processor, drawing program, communications software, a calendar-planner, banner maker, name and address file, note pad and a solitaire game.
Within its own environment, Ensemble is multi-tasking. You can launch multiple GeoWorks programs simultaneously, switch instantly from one to the other and cut and paste material between them.
You can also run standard DOS programs from GeoWorks, but only one at a time. When you run a DOS program, GeoWorks bows out gracefully, leaving a kernel of itself in memory. When you exit from the DOS program, GeoWorks returns to the screen. Windows is more powerful in this regard, allowing you to run multiple DOS programs simultaneously if you have an 80386 computer.
In its applications, GeoWork's Motif model shows some decided advantages over Windows. For example, when you pull down a Windows menu and make a choice, the menu disappears. In Ensemble, you can "tear off" a menu and keep it on the screen or even move it around for repeated tasks such as font selection.
The word processor, called GeoWrite, is good news and bad news. For a low-end product, it has remarkable text formatting capabilities. Yet it lacks one of the most basic elements of word processing -- a search-and-replace function. Nor does it have a spelling checker, although company officials say both will be in future releases. Until these arrive, GeoWrite is a marginal choice for serious writers.
GeoDraw, the graphics program, is a bargain. Unlike most inexpensive graphics programs which use "bit maps" that merely draw dots on your screen and printer, Geodraw is an object-oriented program with many of the features of much more expensive graphic arts packages.
If you draw a circle, it doesn't just draw dots; it actually stores instructions for creating a circle. The result is incredibly smooth printing at any size, on any printer, without the "jaggies" that bit map programs produce.
GeoWrite and GeoDraw take full advantage of GeoWorks' superb font handling. Unlike Windows, which requires that you purchase special fonts or use those built into your printer, Geoworks comes with nine different typefaces which are rendered superbly on screen and on your printer -- at any size.
GeoWorks supports hundreds of printers (but no PostScript devices). While the graphics and word processing programs have excellent color capabilities on screen, the printer drivers will only produce black-and-white output, even on color printers. I hope future releases will address this.
The communications program is pretty basic stuff. It supports a script language for automatic log-ons to remote computer systems, but this is probably beyond most beginners. File transfer protocols are limited to straight text and Xmodem. There's also a trial subscription to Online America, a new, graphic-based information service that's still in the testing stages.
The calendar-planner and rolodex are likewise pretty basic. But they're easy to use and useful, which is all most beginners really want.
The quick-start and instruction manuals make Ensemble a snap to install. They're clear, well-written and obviously designed for beginners.
All things considered, GeoWorks Ensemble is an intriguing beginning. If more programs are developed to run under the GeoWorks environment (including a full-fledged word processor, database and spreadsheet), it will be a worthy alternative to Windows -- particularly for folks who want the latest software design but don't have the latest hardware.
Price: $199.95 list, about $125 on the street.
Purpose: A graphical user environment and package of basic programs designed for XT and AT-compatible computers.
System Requirements: An IBM XT or AT-compatible computer with 512K of memory, hard disk and any standard color or monochrome graphics adapter.
Publisher: GeoWorks, 2150 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley, Calif. 94704, 415-644-083.