Standards: A tech user's best friend

In a massive housecleaning a few weeks ago, I rediscovered my beloved TRS-80 Model 100, the first notebook I ever bought. Maxed out to 32KB (no misprint), it cost over US$1,000 (AUD$1274) back in 1983. But was its memory as good as mine? I tossed in four fresh AA cells and flicked the power on.

Glory be! The little cutie booted up instantly. I bowed gratefully to the god of standards, the one that specifies using batteries you can find in any drugstore instead of proprietary rechargeables.

Then I came back to reality. A day or so before, in a frenzy of discarding old cables, I had apparently tossed out the one for the Model 100 -- thereby rendering its only connection to the outside world, a blazingly fast 300-bps modem (no misprint there, either), unusable. And that was one cable I knew I wasn't going to find down at my neighborhood RadioShack.

But inside the little pocket manual carefully tucked into the plastic case were complete diagrams and descriptions of the cable's connectors: the familiar phone RJ-11 on one end and a big, round eight-pin DIN plug on the other. (The unusual design let you also hook up an acoustic coupler -- youngsters, don't ask.) With a soldering gun and a little talent, you could assemble that cable today. Turns out you can even buy one on the Web -- for US$5.

Standards can rescue you. On a recent trip to Spain, I discovered that my revised packing system for the new "liquids, gels, or aerosols" air-travel rules had somehow left out not only the obviously solid AC charger for the very nonstandard jack on my Palm Treo 600 phone, but also the charging cable that works off my computer's USB port. The standard that won the day was on the inside: the universal SIM card in my GSM Treo.

Once I bought a cheapie phone to tide me over, I stuck in the SIM, which gave the new handset my phone number. True, getting it to handle data required a call to customer service, but it saved my bacon when folks back home needed to find me. Simple. Effective. Interchangeable.

But just when you think you have the standards thing figured out, something comes along to bite you. During my Spanish trip, one hotel's Wi-Fi service simply didn't work with my laptop. The machine could see the wireless network. It would let me enter the passcode the front desk had given me. But connecting would fail, and I'd be returned to the list of wireless nets in the area.

After considerable discussion with a savvy clerk, I figured it all out. The hotel's wireless router was cleverly using the WPA encryption standard -- the newer and better alternative to the WEP encryption more typically used (when there's encryption at all) at public hotspots. But my machine is too old to know from WPA. Not only did it fail to make a connection, but it couldn't tell me what was wrong (though I bet Windows could have helped if its wireless services had been designed better).

As new standards supplant and augment old ones, figuring out where your gadgets fit into the current scheme can be frustrating. A USB 1.1 device may cause Windows to send up a scary howl of protest when you plug it into a USB 2.0 port -- but at least the thing will work. Maybe I'll buy one of those $5 cables to see if 300-bps modems still do.

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Stephen Manes

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