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Computers can enhance relationships

Question: Will computers affect personal relations in some way, like causing people to spend less time with their families? Abelardo Fuerte Herran, Monterrey, Mexico (afuerte-abasis.abacogf.com)

Answer: Personal computers and the Internet give people new choices about how to spend their time.

Some may use this freedom to share less time with certain friends or family members, but new technology will also let them stay in closer touch with those they care most about. I know this from personal experience.

E-mail makes it easy to work at home, which is where I now spend most weekends and evenings. My working hours aren't necessarily much shorter than they once were, but I spend fewer of them at the office. This lets me share more time with my young daughter than I might have if she'd been born before electronic mail became such a practical tool.

The Internet also makes it easy to share thoughts with a group of friends. People who haven't used e-mail much may think it sounds like a sterile form of communication, but fans of e-mail know how personal it can be.

Say you do something fun - see a great movie, perhaps - and there are four or five friends who might want to hear about it. You want to share your experience with them all but you don't have the time to call them all up, one at a time, to talk about it. If you call each one, you'll play phone tag and you may tire of telling the story.

With e-mail, you just write one note about your experience, at your convenience, and address it to all the friends you think might be interested. They can read your message when they have time, and read only as much as they want to. They can reply at their convenience, and you can read what they have to say at your convenience.

Sometimes I e-mail a group of friends a message that I wouldn't bother sending to just one. Being able to reach several friends at once makes it worthwhile.

E-mail is also an inexpensive way to stay in close touch with people who live far away. More than a few parents use e-mail to keep in touch, even daily touch, with their children off at college.

Personal electronic messages can include more than text. Audio and even video can be included. For me, the most fun is to send and receive pictures.

It's a lot of trouble to send photographic prints to people today; you have to get the film processed, get extra prints made, address the envelopes and mail them. I don't send photos by mail very often, and I rarely get them that way.

But friends who have digital cameras send images to me by e-mail all the time. They snap a photo, upload it to their PC and zap it to me. Just a year ago, this didn't happen much, but it does now. It's great!

We just have to keep in mind that computers and the Internet offer another way of staying in touch. They don't eliminate any of the old ways.

Question: I've often wondered why wealthy people sometimes enter politics. Do you have any plans to enter politics after you retire from Microsoft? If you did, what would motivate you? Sae Kang (skang corp.cirrus.com)

Answer: I have no plans, interest or motivation to enter politics.

Question: Why are applications such as Microsoft Excel and Word getting so huge and sophisticated, even though most people only use 10 percent of their potential? Serge Berberof, Belgium (serge.berberof-info-board.be)

Answer: Capabilities are growing, but from a practical standpoint, many applications are actually shrinking. It's true that hardly anybody uses every feature of an application. It's been years since I used all of the features of any of my own.

But people typically use a lot more than 10 percent of the potential of an application, and different people use different pieces. Some people use a word processor's footnotes feature, others use its revision marks to show a document's evolution, and a lot of people use grammar checking.

Fortunately, it's easy to ignore the features that aren't relevant to your needs.

While applications use more disk space and memory than ever before, that's true only in absolute terms. With the performance of computers growing rapidly even as prices fall, applications tend to use a smaller proportion of the available resources than before.

My company used to send products out on a dozen or more floppy disks. The programs took a long time to install and consumed a large share of the space on a hard disk.

Today, programs come on a CD-ROM disc and install quickly. A far smaller percentage of disk space is used because hard disks have greater capacity than ever before. The cost of that disk space is lower than ever before. In effect, the applications are less demanding than they once were.