Let the Computer Do More of It!

Last issue, I discussed how we are slowly (at least in comparison with Moore's Law) learning to use our personal computers for more than just the automation of manual tasks—that is, we have moved from "digital typewriter" to "desktop publisher" and from "digital calculator" to "spreadsheet." In engineering, the transition to "computer-aided design," and not just "computer-aided drafting" has been particularly long and slow.

But as the last members of the generation that left the Egypt of manual work die, and the younger generation who grew up in the "promised land" of all things digital move into management positions, it's happening. Instead of asking, "What good can a computer do here?" we now ask, "Why isn't this being done with computers and the Web?"

There were many things that got left out of last issue's article; some I just didn't think of, others didn't fit. So here are some more thoughts along similar lines.

  • Convergence. My friend, futurist and consultant Jeff Harrow (www.theharrowgroup.com), talks and writes a lot about it—and there is quite a bit to absorb. But you are seeing it all around you: Your cell phone is now a camera, a PDA (personal digital assistant) and possibly an MP3 player, as well as a voice recorder. Your PDA can control your TV and stereo, with the addition of some inexpensive software. Apple just released AirportExpress, a $129 little box that networks wirelessly with your computers, and brings the audio from iTunes (or any other audio application) into your stereo or powered speakers.

    Technologies are being glued together in ways that serve us better than they did when they were separate. TV on your computer screen; surf the Web on your TV. Make hi-fi telephone calls from your computer (www.skype.com), or even from your wireless PDA.

  • Divergence. For the sake of convenience, functions are not just being aggregated; they are also being disaggregated. The Apple AirportExpress unit says, in effect, "Your audio source does not have to be built into, or even wired to, your amplifier and speakers." Bluetooth short-range wireless technology lets your headset connect without wires to your cell phone, your printer to your laptop or PDA--and your sensors to your instrumentation.

  • Collaboration. I'm involved in two intense long-term collaborative efforts. For each, we use a different collaborative tool to "keep everyone on the same page." In our 15-person consulting and publishing company, we use Groove (www.groove.net), a peer-to-peer piece of software that is almost absurdly inexpensive (full version: $149 one-time fee). It allows us to share information via "spaces," which make it appear as if files and other information that we share are all on our computer. In fact, they are; the behind-the-scenes mechanics of keeping everyone in perfect synchronization is what Groove does. (When you change anything, it only sends the change, not the whole file; so even large CAD files don't get stuck in "bandwidth narrows.")

    As you might expect, Groove also supports a full range of PIM (personal information management) tools—directories, calendars, task lists, and more. And as you would like, but not perhaps expect, everything can be sync'd with Outlook.

    There is a passel of companies that provide plug-ins for Groove, things like sales management tools, project managers, and much more.

    My computer died a few weeks ago, and with it, all my Groove stuff. But all I had to do was ask my colleagues to re-invite me to our shared spaces, and I had everything back.

    The other effort uses a Web-based intranet from www.intranets.com. Almost as cheap as Groove ($50/month for five people), this is simply a customizable Web site. It works with Windows' "Web folders" to provide document management that is almost as flexible as Groove's, and less burdensome to any particular computer. Being entirely Web-based, we can access it from anywhere—even someone else's computer, or an Internet café, when necessary. (That was a particular blessing to me when my computer died; I didn't lose any of my group-specific stuff.)

  • Disintermediation. The reason I didn't have to go back to square one in my business life when my computer died was that I have disintermediated my backup procedure: Instead of being responsible for doing it myself, and storing backup media someplace safe, I let Connected Backup (www.connected.com) handle it. I use a "supersize" version, with four gigabytes of storage, which costs me $15/month. It backs up everything I want to the company's servers, as often as I want (I schedule it for once a day, when I'm sleeping). Of course, it's true backup—it sends only differences, not everything. So the first backup takes a while, but the daily one takes only a few minutes.

    Connected keeps multiple versions; I can restore files as they were on a particular date. My only gripe: No archive search function.

    I back up my wife's Macintosh similarly, using a Mac-only service called Backjack (www.backjack.com). It's more expensive in terms of dollars/volume/month, but particularly secure. (And also lacks an archive search function.)

    I let Roboform handle all my many Web site passwords on the PC (www.roboform.com). It encrypts my passwords and offers to fill in the blanks on any Web page that pops up with empty fields. It seems downright prescient, and it saves me a lot of time and frustration.

    When I finally got a fixed computer, I needed to get all my stuff that I'd downloaded from the backup system—and programs I'd installed—from my temporary machine to the new one. That used to mean a couple of days of fiddling. But last year, I discovered PC Relocator (www.alohabob.com). It moves not only data—via LAN or supplied cable—but actually most of my software from one machine to another. Gigs and gigs of stuff. Amazingly, it works!

Foresight and productivity are two themes that many engineering professionals preach, but not all practice. Your computer can make them less a matter of building good habits and maintaining discipline, and more a matter of setting things up to work the right way--once.

Is this a good thing? I think it can be. While I am an advocate of character-building, I really appreciate things that help me with the discipline part. That's what these tools do.


is an author, consultant, and public speaker. He consults to Fortune 500 companies, high-tech startups, and government agencies on CAE issues. He is the founder of the League for Engineering Automation Productivity (LEAP) and has been an Autodesk Distinguished Fellow and the Bentley Engineering Laureate. A long-time Computer-Aided Engineering columnist, in the CAD/CAM monthly e-mail newsletter, Dr. Orr will continue with his reflections on all aspects of engineering. Contact him at joel@joelorr.com or visit his Web site: www.joelorr.com