NEW YORK -- Computers will organize your life. Maybe they'll even cook for you someday. But Jackie Wildau just wants to know how to get rid of those paragraph marks all over the letter she's trying to write.
And please explain the row of tiny pictures above it, like that blue ball called a "global template."
"I don't know what any of this stuff is," the normally organized businesswoman says of the "toolbar" choices in her desktop's Microsoft Office 97 program.
Pass the high-tech Alka-Seltzer, please. Wildau, running a small business out of her Manhattan home, suffers from computer bloat -- the growing tendency for machines to come stuffed with features many people don't need or understand, let alone use.
They allow us to speed up or slow down the computer mouse, view and retrieve files four different ways, watch TV on the desktop, play games in 3-D, receive faxes.
Computer enthusiasts love it, but the bewildering selection sometimes has the rest of us scared we'll push the wrong button. The extraordinary array has slowed computing in some ways even as machines have grown more powerful. The bloat is making it tougher to trace why PCs break and how to fix them.
It's no accident computers contain so much; some customers demand it. Microsoft Corp. says it has continually added features to its Windows computer operating system for 13 years but hasn't subtracted much. By absorbing features previously available as separate applications sold by other companies, Microsoft has gained a competitive advantage in the software business. But what started as a good idea may now be giving computers indigestion.
About 600 common programs and features in home computers -- many included in the purchase price -- were used in a given month by fewer than one in a thousand of those who own them, according to a survey of 10,000 households by Media Metrix Inc., a New York-based high-tech measurement company.
The software ranges from a Windows Wineguide to a Mouse Manager that lets users change the device's settings. They include Windows Draw and a Windows Fax Viewer which shows the faxes coming into your PC. Beyond Microsoft products, there's Spiderman Cartoon Maker, My First Encyclopedia, Print Shop Deluxe Graphics and lots more.
On average, people use only about 13 percent of the features and programs they own, Media Metrix said.
"This `add without ever subtracting' approach won't work going forward in the future, because the complexity is getting out of control," said Mike Elgan, editor of Windows magazine. "People don't feel like they have control over their desktops anymore."
Others view the overabundance as a fair price to pay for a big convenience: Ubiquitous software. Because Microsoft keeps so many features alive on its operating system, developers write software that runs on a wide variety of machines -- even older computers.
"It's sort of a deal with the devil we've all made," said Larry Seltzer, technical director at PC Magazine.
Cellular phones, pagers, fax machines, unlimited Internet access -- information overload is straining our minds and bodies. So the goal with most technology is to make it simpler to use. For example, makers of VCR remote controls have discarded the little-used buttons. Yet the home computer has gone in the other direction.
Early indications are that Windows 98, Microsoft's successor to its Windows 95 program for running computers, will indeed make some things simpler -- but in many cases by adding more stuff.
Windows 98 will help software applications occupy 30 percent less space on a machine's hard drive. It includes a "disk defragmentator" to load programs faster. It has a troubleshooting guide for common computer problems, and it lets users more easily hook up peripherals such as game joysticks and video cameras.
But other features add complexity. Computer users can watch TV on their desktops, run two monitors at once and view high-capacity digital video disks. And while Windows 95 offered users four ways to retrieve and view files and programs, Windows 98 wants to add a fifth: software for browsing the Internet, making the computer screen a viewfinder for stored items on the desktop and Web sites on the Internet.
"We have to do the one product that will meet most people's needs," says Robert Bennett, Microsoft's group product manager on Windows 98.
But federal prosecutors believe Microsoft has another reason for fattening its operating system. The Justice Department contends that Microsoft is using its Windows market muscle to foist its browser on customers, illegally squeezing other companies' browsers out of the market.
But while the computer world awaits the imminent release of Windows 98, many users are still learning Windows 95, and some still content themselves with sturdy old no-frills Windows 3.1.
Trying to use feature-laden Windows 95 "is like sumo wrestlers trying to do ballet," said David Hirsch, a lawyer in Burlington, Iowa, griping about the PCs in his office.
When she's not computing or raising her two children, Wildau runs Pastiche Inc. in Manhattan, which hires actors and mimes to portray prancing lobsters and dancing flowers at corporate bashes. She also hired an assistant to help run the computer, because she often felt it was outsmarting her.
Months after she started using Microsoft's Office 97 package of word-processing and business software, Wildau finally reached her fill of the paragraph marks crawling over her pages like ants at a Sunday picnic. She phoned her husband, who happens to assist a computer support line for a law firm. He told her where to click.
This same morning, Wildau unraveled the mystery of the blue globe on her computer screen. Once again, her husband had the answer: It leads to a style sheet with preprogrammed settings. Wildau doesn't expect ever to use it.
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