- The Washington Times - Monday, November 6, 2006

Once upon a time in American business, “planned obsolescence” was a dominant ideology: Things would be built to last X number of years and then they’d fall apart and would have to be replaced.

As consumers, many of us have experienced this with cars, refrigerators and toaster ovens, to name but three, and I believe that latter product is today’s most egregious example of planned obsolescence. Worse still, the potential replacements are, by and large, easy to spot as being inferior to the older models.

But I digress.

The subject of this column, after all, is computers, and in technology, obsolescence takes on different shades. For example, Microsoft Corp.’s Windows 2000 operating system, once incarnated as “Windows NT,” should still run happily well into the future, perhaps as far as the year 2020, if not longer.

But Microsoft’s Web site lists little in the way of support for Windows 2000, which had primarily been “pushed” as a networker server operating system, and instead is promoting Windows Server 2003, at least until the server edition of Windows Vista arrives.

It’s Microsoft’s right, of course, to say which products it will, and won’t, support, and to set life spans for those products. It can be argued, that today’s operating systems — and tomorrow’s — will deliver a lot more computing power and capability, and do so better than their predecessors.

But it’s an open question whether adding more features and more overhead to products necessarily makes them better. Some new items, still in review at On Computers Central, raise that question.

The “Dana Wireless,” a $429 “smart” terminal and more from Renaissance Learning of Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., is the successor to the old AlphaSmart 3000; it even bears an AlphaSmart name.

Unlike the older model, the Dana uses the Palm operating system. However, the new machine’s implementation is puzzling at times. The pre-loaded e-mail program, which supposedly goes to the Web via a built-in Wi-Fi radio, won’t touch my e-mail account, no matter how I try. Thus, sending a word processing file via e-mail isn’t possible right now.

While the predecessor model didn’t offer either Wi-Fi or e-mail, at least the AlphaSmart 3000 was up front about that. You got a terminal you could use to write and store text files with. It had only a four-line display, not the eight lines of the Dana, but that was manageable, too.

The new product is nice, light and seems to be useful in many ways. I’m not sure I’ll like it as much as the old one, though. The “getting used to it” curve seems steeper in part because of the improved display: The new lines seem a bit hard to read, although you can enlarge the font.

The new Dana does offer a pair of SecureDigital, or SD, memory card slots, boosting the already useful 16 megabytes of memory to far greater amounts. Pop the card out and place it in a desktop computer’s adapter, and file transfers are a breeze; there’s also software and a USB cable for such connections.

Weighing only 2 pounds, the Dana Wireless promises a lot in a small package. I do wish elements of the delivery, such as the e-mail and the Wi-Fi transmitter, were a bit more reliable and consistent. For those looking for a way to take notes and compose writing on the go, however, this is a product worth considering. Details at www.alphasmart.com.

• Read Mark Kellner’s Technology blog on The Washington Times Web site at www.washingtontimes.com/blogs.

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