The Great Tech Call-'Em-Like-You-See-'Em Contest Winners

Our contestants wowed us with their technical brilliance, their biting wit, and their literary erudition...well, okay ??? we got some really great essays. Here are the winners.

August 12, 2005

36 Min Read
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Well, we've done it. After reading and re-reading hundreds of essays and arguing until the wee hours, our judges have chosen the winners of The Great Tech Call-'Em-Like-You-See-'Em Contest.

Believe us, it wasn't easy. The entries we received from our readers were thoughtful, opinionated, witty, heartfelt, and entertaining. (Well, most of them were, anyway. Some of them were downright scary. You know who you are.) We're very impressed. (For more gushing about our readers' entries, see Features Editor Valerie Potter's column You Wow Us With Your Prose.)

Our contestants weighed in on one or more of these four categories:

The Software Hall Of Fame: You wrote fervently and eloquently about the best software you've come across in the past 10 years. We thought more of you would choose Firefox. Instead, we were treated to a vast array of products — from high-end graphics software to free utilities to Linux distros — that inspire the kind of loyalty usually reserved for sports teams and Macs. It's good to know there are programs out there that make a real difference in their users' lives, and we thank you for sharing them with us.

The Hardware Hall Of Fame: You told us your picks for the best hardware that's come down the pike in the last 10 years. Cell phones, handhelds, storage media, mice, hard drives, and more — even the gone-but-not-forgotten Commodore Amiga — made your lists, and many of you shared anecdotes about how your favorite gear has saved the day. Well done.The Next Big Thing: This was the most difficult of our four categories to write about — and indeed, fewer brave souls ventured here than anywhere else. It took a combination of research, imagination, and guts to predict future technologies like brainwave transceivers and "eldertech," but you did it. We commend all those who took on this daunting task.

Helpless User Stories: You made us laugh. You made us cry. You made us scratch our heads in wonder at the sheer ignorance of users, the misadventures of techs, and the wrong-headed policies of corporations. We got the highest volume of entries in this category, and we're sorry we can't print them all.

Weighing entries from these disparate categories was like comparing apples to oranges to elephants, but we finally came up with a list of 38 winners based on originality, humor, wit, style, and strength of argument. Alas, there isn't room to print all the winning essays. We have just enough space to print the entries from our Grand Prize winner, our First Prize winner, our ten Second Prize winners, and the winner of our Honorable Mention. We've listed the names of all our Runners Up, along with the prizes they've won, on the final page of this story.

So, without further ado, here are the top winning entries. Read them — and enjoy.

Many thanks to X1 Technologies, Logitech, Thornsoft Development, and Sunbelt Software for contributing their goods to our cause. We couldn't have run this contest without their generosity.

We'd also like to say thanks to all who entered our contest. We know it took a good deal of time and effort to compose your essays and stories. Congratulations to the winners, and thank you all for participating.
Grand Prize Winner: Kerry Dalzotto
From: Edwardsville, Illinois
Category: Helpless User Stories
Prize: Apple iPod Photo 30GB ($350 value)
You Need To Talk To This Guy
I worked for Union Pacific (UP) Railroad for a little over twelve years. I designed and wrote instructions for railroad personnel to use new software developed during the end of the railroad's mainframe environment, through the first five years or so of client-server development.

Toward the end of the mainframe era, I was sent out to the Alton & Southern (A&S) Railroad in East St. Louis, Illinois, to implement a crew reporting system, which the A&S had bought from the UP. We realized not far into the classroom training that a workforce of forty-, fifty- and sixty-year-old conductors, engineers, switchmen and brakemen who had probably never touched a keyboard before was going to be a nightmare.

I had to call the help desk to reset one guy's password three nights in a row. On the third night I made him write it down and put it in his wallet.

The implementation came. No one had paid any attention during the training, and I spent my first twelve-hour shift explaining what a user ID was for, and that you weren't going to get into the system to report your earnings until you remembered 1) what a password was, and 2) what your password was. I had to call the UP help desk to reset one guy's password three nights in a row. On the third night I made him write it down and put it in his wallet.Three or four nights of grueling twelve-hour shifts and horrible attitudes came and went, but the workers were reporting their time. Suspicious comments persisted: "We're gonna see if we really get our paychecks." "There's gonna be hell to pay if my hours are short."

One night I came in at midnight when a batch of guys returning from vacation would be using the reporting system for the first time. By the crew house was an East St. Louis police car with lights rolling. No one was loitering outside, so I went in and found about five trainmen and a local cop standing around the terminal.

I walked up to the group, and one of the guys pointed at me and said, "Here's the man now." The cop glanced at me, then back at the switchman and said, "Jesus Christ, Ernie. If the damn thing ain't workin' then you need to talk to this guy. You don't need to call the damned police."

First Prize Winner: Brendon Connelly
From: Newberg, Oregon
Category: The Software Hall Of Fame
Prize: Apple iPod Mini 6GB ($250 value)

I admit it. I'm an absolute raving fan of ActiveWords. Whenever I have the misfortune of working on a PC without ActiveWords, I feel like I'm not wearing pants.

In a nutshell, ActiveWords is a macro utility for your PC. That description doesn't really do it justice, though, since it'll also correct your spelling on the fly (and in any context), it'll perform Internet searches on keywords with just a few keystrokes, it'll hide all the icons on your desktop, and more. Of course, it'll do all the typical macro functions as well — text replacement, repeating various keystrokes or mouse-clicks in sequence, and so on.One of the nicest features of ActiveWords is that it is unattached to context, so no matter what application you're using, ActiveWords is ready and waiting to do your bidding. For instance, we all know that MS Word has a spellchecker, so there's no surprise when words are flagged for review. But how about text fields in Web pages? With ActiveWords, 1,800 common misspellings (yeah, you can add your own) are corrected on the fly no matter where you're typing — Word, a text field, whatever.

Once you've become accustomed to using ActiveWords, it's absolutely annoying to be forced to work on a machine that lacks it.

Obscure and hard-to-find ASCII characters are easier to access with ActiveWords. To get a © symbol I had to type the word copyright and hit the F12 key. How long does it take you? How about the British £ sign? ¾? ®? ¿? You get the idea.

Have you ever been working away in an application and realized that you had to e-mail something to your friend Matt? It's usually a hassle to go to Outlook and begin a new message. ActiveWords lets you type Matt and hit your confirmation key. Boom, you've got an e-mail addressed to Matt, with the cursor in the subject field, and you never had to leave your original application.

There's much more to say about ActiveWords, of course — it'll perform more complex sequences like logging you into specific applications with your user ID and password. But I'll stop raving for now. My only note of caution is that if you decide to take advantage of the generous 60-day trial period, you'll be hooked by the time the clock runs out.But that 60-day trial isn't where it ends. Once you've coughed up the dough for your chosen version of ActiveWords ($20 for the basic version, $50 for the version that allows scripting), your license allows you to place the application on up to three computers. They understand that once you've become accustomed to using ActiveWords, it's absolutely annoying to be forced to work on a machine that lacks it. It's like...well, not wearing pants.

More Info:
ActiveWords from Active Word Systems, Inc.
Available in SE ($20), Plus ($50), and Enterprise ($30/seat) versions
Free 60-day trial
Second Prize Winner: Ralph Dallons

From: San Luis Obispo, California
Category: The Next Big Thing
Prize: X1 Desktop Search, Outlook + Lotus Notes Edition ($130 value)
I have a question. Actually, first I have an observation.

I read all this stuff about how in the near future we will have the ability to be connected using all this neat technology no matter where we go. This is premised on the availability of high-speed Internet, of course.

Now, I live in small town in California, but we do have a fine university that manages to throw several hundred engineering and architecture graduates to the wolves every year. As you might expect, the broadband infrastructure is adequate "in town." You have a choice of cable, DSL, and so many coffeehouse hotspots that it's possible to throw your latte mug out of one and hit another.

The question is, what about all the people who do not have this hardwired infrastructure available? How are they supposed to access information? Dial-up? Oh, please no!WiMAX, short for Worldwide Interoperabilty for Microwave Access, could be the answer. It can blanket an area many times larger than Wi-Fi with high-speed Internet access, and can work in urban, suburban, and rural areas using existing buildings or communication towers.

Intel, Motorola, Fujitsu, and dozens of other companies see WiMAX as a practical alternative for high-speed Internet access.

Imagine driving down the highway with both kids in the backseat downloading music and playing the latest online massive player offering.

The city of Philadelphia, in 2004, wanted to spend $10 million to create a "hotspot" that would cover 135 square miles, including neighborhoods with little access to broadband technology. The only people who are fighting them are the communication companies that want the revenue for themselves. Granted, we're talking about a large metropolitan area with hundreds of thousands of potential customers (the city wants to make it a free service), but this can be used in rural environments where people would dearly love to access high-speed Internet for a reasonable price. It could compete with wireless companies, such as Verizon, that offer 3G connections via their networks at comparable prices with higher bandwidth.

Intel has developed a WiMAX chip that will go into a small box connected to your computer. However, you know within a few years they will shrink it down so it will fit in a device about the size of your current cell phone. Imagine driving down the highway with both kids in the backseat downloading music and playing the latest online massive player offering. Oh yeah, and Mapquest when you get lost.Just a little slice of heaven.

More Info:
Intel and WiMAX
Fujitsu and WiMAX
Motorola Canopy Wireless
News: Philadelphia's WiMAX Plans
Second Prize Winner: Greg Krumrey

From: Manchester, Missouri
Category: The Next Big Thing
Prize: X1 Desktop Search, Outlook + Lotus Notes Edition ($130 value)
Satellite Driver Monitoring/Accident Prevention
Vincent "Vinnie" Tuskamonto pulls onto the highway. Cigarette in hand and juiced from 32 ounces of Mountain Dew, Vinnie makes his first move: From the outside lane to the inside lane in three seconds, accelerating from 45 to 70 mph in the process. Cars swerve, brakes lock, and fingers wave. Vinnie smiles. Traffic is moving pretty fast, about 75, but the lane in front of him is blocked. He oscillates between 48 and 16 inches behind the bumper in front of him, wiggling back and forth in the lane to show his displeasure.

A satellite from geostationary orbit is feeding a steady stream of images to the situation room at the Missouri Department of Transportation office. There, a network of high-powered computers takes the 5-frames-per-second high-resolution feed, turns it into a series of vectors, and breaks those down into direction, distance, and acceleration, further calculating position with respect to other vehicles.

This data is turned into driving profiles, brief histories of how cars behave in traffic while in the observation zone. If a car breaks down, highway assistance is dispatched before it coasts to a stop. When an accident occurs, appropriate rescue is dispatched, based on impact force and probable injury. Today, MoDOT is testing out accident prevention mode. And it just found Vinnie.

A typical driver scores 5 to 10 on the hazard scale. A driver in the grip of road rage may hit 25 to 30. Vinnie has been holding at 41 for over a minute.

Vinnie cuts in front of an SUV, then locks his brakes as traffic suddenly slows. The SUV's driver can't act fast enough, but her vehicle does. The vehicle's computer applies the anti-lock brakes and keeps the SUV just inches from hitting Vinnie. He speeds on, changing lanes every two seconds.

On MoDOT's screen, the rectangle representing Vinnie's car turns red. A few seconds later, it starts flashing. A typical driver scores 5 to 10 on the hazard scale. A driver in the grip of road rage may hit 25 to 30. Vinnie has been holding at 41 for over a minute.

A camera mounted on the overpass takes a series pictures as the flashing rectangle passes under it. A state trooper hears a series of beeps, glances at the late '70s model rust- and Bondo-colored Trans Am that just appeared on his monitor, starts his engine, and flips on the lights. Vinnie is moving so fast his tires smoke when he spots the police car. The trooper pulls him over, and his battle ends for the day.

The images from the satellite are already being burned onto a DVD. The only thing that could keep Vinnie on the road now is an aggression monitor. Looking like a large radar detector mounted on the windshield, it would give Vinnie real-time feedback and a chance to change his ways. It would also report his progress to his parole officer to keep him honest — and let the rest of us breathe a little easier.

More Info:
Vehicle tracking
Collision avoidance
Windshield-mounted driver monitor
Second Prize Winner: Edward Zaffino
From: Lake Peekskill, New York

Category: The Software Hall Of Fame
Prize: X1 Desktop Search, Outlook + Lotus Notes Edition ($130 value)
WordPerfect 5.1
When is a blue screen a good thing? When the blue screen is the working screen of your word-processing software. WordPerfect 5.1, how we miss thee. Call me old-fashioned, but a part of me longs for a DOS prompt, WordPerfect 5.1, and a cold beer.No, it's not sexy or even pretty when compared to today's GUI software, but oh, the things you could do with macros and a few keystrokes. No wading through seemingly unending levels of options and functions and commands that you have to wonder if anyone ever uses.

Call me old-fashioned, but a part of me longs for a DOS prompt, WordPerfect 5.1, and a cold beer.

Let's face it, WYSIWYG (remember that acronym?) is vastly overrated. Like the young starlet with much to learn about her craft, it looks good, but do you want to spend more than a long weekend with her?

With 5.1 you set your margins and paragraph style and font, typed away, saved, then hit Print and got what you expected. No confusing lines on the screen, just a blinking cursor waiting patiently for your Muse to guide your fingers to some genius expression of language.

More Info:

Newer versions of WordPerfect are available from Corel Corporation, but they're not the same.
Second Prize Winner: Lynn Greiner
From: Toronto, Ontario
Category: The Hardware Hall Of Fame
Prize: X1 Desktop Search, Outlook + Lotus Notes Edition ($130 value)

The first time I saw a BlackBerry was at a Palm user conference. People were wandering around, heads down, thumb-typing madly on these funny-looking little black things that obviously were not Palms. I rolled my eyes and moved on.Then an editor asked me to review one of these contraptions. I was dubious — who wants to be that connected? Besides, I loved my Palm.

Then I laid hands on a BlackBerry. Loved the e-mail, hated the PIM. I still used my Palm, but rapidly became addicted to being able to respond to work issues from anywhere with the BlackBerry. It gave me the freedom to be out of the office, yet still be responsive to work demands. More than once, I joined the heads-down thumb-typing crowd, answering tech support questions while wandering the floor of a trade show.

The BlackBerry, on the clunky old Ardis network, was our communication lifeline for two days.

The occasion that welded the BlackBerry into my life was on September 11, 2001. My company was supposed to be holding a management meeting in New York, and most of us flew in that morning. (We actually were flying by the World Trade Center when the first plane hit, but that's another story.)

By the time we landed, communications were a shambles. Land lines were jammed, cellular unusable, Internet connections (including our company's e-mail gateway) down, and all of us had worried families whom we wanted to reassure.The BlackBerry, on the clunky old Ardis network, was our communication lifeline for the two days we were there. With it, I was able to send my husband e-mails, and he passed messages on to the office for relay to my traveling companions' families and co-workers. And during the long drive home, I sent him regular updates on our location and status.

How can you not love a device that provided a tiny island of sanity amidst the madness?

I still use a BlackBerry (a newer one — Old Faithful gave up the ghost last year), and still rely on it to keep me in touch, wherever I am. That's the beauty of the device: It just works, reliably and with minimal fuss. Battery life has declined over the years, as RIM succumbed to the siren song of telephony, but aside from that, it just keeps getting better.

More Info:
BlackBerry from Research In Motion Ltd.
Many models available, street price approx. $100 - $400
Second Prize Winner: David Kerr-Burke
From: Corpus Christi, Texas
Category: Helpless User Stories
Prize: X1 Desktop Search, Outlook + Lotus Notes Edition ($130 value)

Pet PC
I service small businesses with 10 or fewer systems — Mom-and-Pop-type operations. One of these clients, a uniform maker, had a problem: Their computer system in the alterations department was down, dead as a doornail.

I opened the case to find a fried mouse, lots of sunflower seeds, and the cause of the dead system.

So I responded, and after checking the obvious (everything plugged in, etc.), I opened the case to find a fried mouse, lots of sunflower seeds, and the cause of the dead system. Seems the alterations department is a lonely place, and the women working there were feeding the mouse — they never thought there might be a problem with a small animal living in a computer.

After a proper burial and a new motherboard, I made sure all the slot covers were on and advised them not to allow mice to live in their systems. Who would have thought that warning would ever be needed?
Second Prize Winner: Tim Gesner
From: Riverside, California
Category: The Software Hall Of Fame

Prize: X1 Desktop Search, Outlook + Lotus Notes Edition ($130 value)
Microsoft Solitaire
Gmail? Sure, it's great, but what happens when the next big/free e-mail comes along? There will be a new version of the Windows or Mac OS, a new wild first-person shooter, a new bigger and better and badder version of anything you can pretty much think of will eventually come out.

But the one piece of software that I would like to nominate as the best ever, is ... ta-da! MICROSOFT SOLITAIRE!!!

Oh sure, you laugh, but just think about it a minute. What one piece of software unites every single PC user since Windows 3.x? What do you do with your time when you have five minutes to kill while that killer app is downloading, or your boss just stepped out for lunch and you no longer have to pretend you're busy (besides, the network is down — again!)? What program — and it really doesn't have to even be Microsoft's version of solitaire — but what program transcends age and computer friendliness like Solitaire?

Everybody plays it — EVERYBODY! It's this dumb little throwaway piece of software, and it doesn't matter if you open it up to play once a year or every day — you get the same wonderful game each time. It doesn't whine, it's not too slow, and you can close it (the boss is back!) instantly and not lose the last three dungeons, or the car race that would have gotten you into the finals, or even the spreadsheet you were working on.

What one piece of software unites every singlePC user since Windows 3.x?

It just works, flawlessly. It also doesn't matter if you're still running that old 486SX-166 you paid $2,000 for in 1994 or you just bought a brand-new $299 bottom-of-the-barrel PC computer system that is twenty times faster than that old 486 — it's all good. There's no updates, no bugs, no spamming, no viruses, just plain fun. And that says a lot in today's world — that something so simple is not only still around, but is embraced by almost everyone.

Oh yeah, and if you say you hate Solitaire, you probably hate it because you played it every day for a year and then your boss snuck in the back door and caught you and fired you for being lazy and not doing your work! Now you hate it because you are sitting at home in your underwear, and can't afford to keep paying for your Internet connection, and the only thing you can do on your computer is play Solitaire. Try using Gmail without an Internet connection — it doesn't work too well now, does it?

P.S. I have more to say on this, but I'm using the city library computer to type this and my half-hour is almost up. Plus I have this job interview to go to in about ten minutes down at Kinko's, and I have time for one more game, so I got to go!

More Info:
Solitaire Overview from Microsoft
Second Prize Winner: Kevin Gilhooly
From: Dallas, Texas
Category: Helpless User Stories
Prize: X1 Desktop Search, Outlook + Lotus Notes Edition ($130 value)
Emergency Autodialer

Years ago, I wrote an autodialer for a company to connect their laptops to their internal network. On the basic design, I won some battles (they let me add an optional extra digit like '9' or '8' to get an outside line), and I lost some (they wanted '1-800-xxx-xxxx' hard-coded, not just '800-xxx-xxxx'). After they realized some people didn't have to dial 1 first (depending on the phone system), I got my way and the number was changed to '800-xxx-xxxx' in the code. We sent instructions out to the field to download the new version, and then add '1' to the prefix field, if required.

After the police and fire department arrived,they realized the problem.

One sales rep could never get connected, so the managers finally started playing with his laptop one night. He had followed the instructions for setting up the dialer perfectly, so none of them could understand why when it connected, they heard voices instead of the modem tone. They tried a number of times, but it never got to our remote system.

After the police and fire department arrived, they realized the problem. The sales rep had the old code with the new instructions. Apparently, the phone didn't know that 9, 1, 1-800-xxx-xxxx was an error — it just thought he was dialing 911.
Second Prize Winner: Dale Evanchak
From: Rancho Santa Margarita, California
Category: The Hardware Hall Of Fame
Prize: X1 Desktop Search, Outlook + Lotus Notes Edition ($130 value)

USB: The Universal Savior Bus
In August, 1995, Microsoft introduced its new flagship OS, generically titled Windows 95. Despite its generic name, the new OS offered improvements on a monumental scale. We saw the introduction of Plug-and-Play, which in the beginning more resembled Plug-and-Pray, but was a huge step toward the hardware integration Microsoft promised and we all had hoped for.

But despite the hardware-aware OS, we were still challenged with numerous devices, scanners, printers, those new-fangled webcams, etc., running independently through their own proprietary (sometimes fixed) cable that required its own dedicated port, usually serial, on the back of our PCs. If we were lucky, our scanner had a parallel pass-through port built in. Otherwise it was a discouraging task to unplug your printer or scanner every time you wanted to use the other.

While Microsoft was on the right path to connecting all of our favorite devices to our PCs, the actual hardware seemed a bit out of touch.Our savior came in the form of a Universal Serial Bus (USB). USB brought in a standard for connecting our disparate devices, and also provided a means for sharing a single PC port with a multitude of hardware. Our printers, scanners, digital cameras, webcams, gaming controllers, and backup devices quickly adopted the new connection standard.

You can't go to a computer store now and find a device that doesn't support USB in some capacity.

It wasn't long before hardware manufacturers recognized the potential of USB, and began outfitting everything imaginable with a USB connection, and after a few short years of proving itself to the computing world, the standard was ratified and the new USB 2.0 was born. Faster data transfer speeds prompted a slew of new hardware — such as removable media, external hard drives, multimedia devices, MP3 players, pocket PCs (not to be confused with handhelds), NICs, mice, keyboards, and camcorders, to name a few — which were specifically designed to take advantage of the USB 1.1/2.0 standard.

With the backing of so many hardware manufacturers, Plug-and-Play became what it was always intended to be. No more shutting down the PC to connect certain types of hardware. No more constant switching of devices sharing the same dedicated port. Hot swappable devices with self-activating device drivers are now commonplace. You can't go to a computer store now and find a device that doesn't support USB in some capacity. Try finding a PC, or an MC for that matter, that doesn't have a USB port. You'll likely be in awe of the relic before you if you do.

A technological marvel developed, not by a single corporation or research team, but by a conglomeration of industry leaders, businesses that required a more efficient means of getting their work done, and the public at large who demanded the interoperability of the numerous toys in their treasure chest.No single piece of hardware technology has catapulted us into the 21st century as much as the now-ubiquitous USB.

More Info:

TechEncyclopedia: USB
Wikipedia: Universal Serial Bus
Second Prize Winner: Susan August
From: Mountain View, California
Category: The Software Hall Of Fame
Prize: X1 Desktop Search, Outlook + Lotus Notes Edition ($130 value)

The clinical definition: "FreeMind is a premier free mind-mapping software written in Java." The unpaid testimonial: FreeMind is the next best thing after pop-up tissue.

To understand the power of FreeMind, you must first understand the power of mindmapping. If you don't know what mindmapping is, do yourself a favor and Wikipedia it. You'll discover that a "mindmap is a multicoloured and image centered radial diagram that represents semantic or other connections between portions of learned material." Needing a tissue to wipe away the tears of boredom right about now? Stay with me, and know this: you can use mindmapping for group brainstorming, for project planning, for requirements capture, for scenario planning, for pattern seeking, for planning a long email, and for preparing a presentation. You got problems? Mindmap them. In all likelihood, you've already got solutions in your noggin that are just waiting to be discovered. The nonlinear, networked, creative, freeform approach of mindmapping will help you find them.

Plus, at the end of the day, your mindmap is a delightful knowledge map suitable for framing. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you too can impress your colleagues with fancy cubicle mindmap art.

As far as life skills go, knowing how to mindmap is right up there with knowing how to open a bottle of champagne without shooting your eye out.

Now that you understand the power of mindmapping, you may ask: Why is FreeMind the bee's knees? Well, this may come as a surprise, but it's free of charge. As in you don't have to ask anyone for permission or funds to use it. In fact, your whole team can adopt it in less than half an hour. It's easy to use and the help file itself is a mindmap — three big cheers for any program that self-documents by eating its own dog food.

Final question: Why use FreeMind to generate a mindmap rather than a whiteboard or paper and pencil? A FreeMind mindmap is easy to modify — after the initial brainstorm you can tidy up your thoughts again and again by regrouping them under the appropriate parent and children nodes. It's also shareable across time and space — e-mail the mindmap file itself, or export it to HTML in outline format. FreeMind also allows for information hiding — just click on a node to expand or collapse the nitty gritty details of its children. You can start at 10,000 feet and drill into the details as needed; and, yes, you may even want to start using mindmaps instead of snore-worthy slidedecks in your organization. Daring and unexpected? You bet; and exactly what your bored attention deficit colleagues are craving.

Frankly, as far as life skills go, knowing how to mindmap is right up there with knowing how to type and knowing how to open a bottle of champagne without shooting your eye out. FreeMind simply updates the mindmapping skill for the 21st century with a slick and free Java interface. Give it a try; you'll like it.

More Info:
Price: free
Wikipedia: mindmapping
Second Prize Winner: Tony Brezovski
From: Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Category: The Software Hall Of Fame
Prize: X1 Desktop Search, Outlook + Lotus Notes Edition ($130 value)

My nomination weighs in at less than 200K of assembly code, reflects 16 years of continuous development, costs plenty, and is still saddled with outdated documentation: Steve Gibson's SpinRite v6.0 is worthy, documentation notwithstanding.

SpinRite is nearly synonymous with transparent data recovery for PC hard drives (not to mention the once ubiquitous, failure-prone old floppies); even non-techs can perform some sophisticated data recovery with Gibson's utility. The latest version even works on NTFS drives!

The simple truth is that if you recoversomebody's data from the abyss just once, they think you can do anything.

While nothing replaces routine backups, SpinRite is my keystone recommendation for any budding technician's emergency kit both in light of its high effectiveness at data recovery and its inclusion of a slick medicine-show real-time screen that never fails to impress my technically challenged associates. The simple truth is that if you recover somebody's data from the abyss just once, they think you can do anything.

SpinRite works at the sector level outside of the operating system. Indeed, v6.0 uses FreeDOS. Gibson's algorithms rigorously test every sector, then the utility recovers data (its Dynastat feature combs through thousands of attempts to elicit a sector's data) and presses spare sectors into service if necessary.

Data recovery scenarios aside, I do a level 4 maintenance run with SpinRite every month. If anything goes awry with my drives, I am going to know about it in advance of need. Without SpinRite, you cannot say the same.

More Info:
SpinRite v6.0 from Gibson Research Corporation

Price: $89 ($29 to $69 to upgrade from previous versions)
Honorable Mention: Tim Parsons
From: Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex, United Kingdom
Category: The Software Hall Of Fame
Editor's Note: Because Mr. Parsons is not a resident of the United States or Canada, he is ineligible to win one of our prizes. However, he has graciously agreed to let us print his wonderful essay anyway. Thank you, Tim!RoboForm
Being a reasonably security-savvy techie, I try fairly hard to use a variety of passwords and user IDs on Web sites where I need them. I'm careful about which of my several e-mail addresses I use, depending on how much I might want to see any e-mail the relevant Web site throws at me. And having a brain the size of a planet, I have no difficulty remembering all the information so I can type it in at a stroke.

Okay, I lied. The place I keep my passwords isn't my brain at all. There's a better way. RoboForm is the place.

RoboForm remembers my passwords and user IDs, and integrates into IE/Maxthon/Firefox/etc. so that all I have to do is click the "fill and submit" button and it does its stuff.

It also integrates a rather lovely random password generator. I might quietly hate the idea of passwords like "75uy6skv3t" — even though I know very well they're far more secure than remembering "pa55word" or my mother's middle name — but how much better does it feel when RoboForm makes one for me, to my specification (uppercase, lowercase, digits and symbols included, or not, specified number of characters, minimum number of digits, all of which will "stick" until I change strategy), and stores it for me against the user ID I've chosen for the site, so I simply don't have to remember it? Ever? I mean, wow.

Bugs — there have been very few — get fixed sometime yesterday, generally.

RoboForm knows how to enter my address details into places where I need to provide that information. It also allows me to have multiple profiles with work details or home, and it protects everything it knows about me behind a single password, which is the only one I have to remember.

Which is all very wonderful on its own. The downside is that it's only useful on a computer on which it's installed. Wander away to another machine, and all my passwords in storage are over there, thumbing their noses at me.

And then we discover there's a portable version. Install it on a thumbdrive, plug it into a USB port and it'll run from there, no PC installation required.

All this and you just know it's loved and maintained by its developers: hardly a week goes by without another minor update — some big, some small — and the installer just works, installs over the top of the last version in no time flat and just goes on working. Bugs — there have been very few — get fixed sometime yesterday, generally.

This really is software I don't know how I ever did without. Small and unintrusive yet a genuine enabler, and I commend it to your attention. No, YOUR attention, I'm not writing generically here. Do it. You just KNOW it's better than sticking Post-Its to your monitor, right?More Info:
RoboForm from Siber Systems, Inc.
Available in free, Pro ($30), and mobile ($10) versions
Runners Up
Our runners up received a variety of great hardware and software packages. Congratulations to all!

QuickCam for Notebooks Deluxe from Logitech ($60 value)





Matt Gracie

Buffalo, NY


"Upgrading To DSL"

Stephen Grady

Vancouver, BC


"Where's The Printer?"           

Marc Mandel

Old Bethpage, NY


"Those Pesky Bills"

QuickCam Communicate STX from Logitech ($50 value)





Sande Nissen

Northfield, MN


Bart PE-Builder                     

Ted Swoyer

Billerica, MA



Paul Terrazas

Albuquerque, NM


Flash Drives

ClipMate from Thornsoft Development ($30 value)





Julia Ray

Southern Shores, NC


Dragon Naturally Speaking

Jack Carlson

San Diego, CA


Blog Software

Nick Charalambous

Chilliwack, BC



Rob Wilke

Chelsea, MI


"Cumquats and Umlauts"

Rich Barrett

Sauquoit, NY


Flash Memory

Jeff Partridge

New Philadelphia, OH


Multicore Computing, New MS OS 

Donna Lutin

South Bend, IN


"6 Toolbars Are Better Than One" 

Mike Chinea

Los Angeles, CA


"Virus Second Opinion"

Brian Culver

Everett, WA


"Big B"

Geoffrey Nathan

Detroit, MI



CounterSpy from Sunbelt Software ($20 value)





Michael Radway

Portland, OR


Apple Talking Moose

Robert Tharp

Woodside, CA


"Keyboard Warm-Up"

Mike Butler

Wapello, IA


Beyond Compare

Harry Brown

Spencer, MA


"Password-Protected Hard Drive"      

Sidney Gilbert

Tucson, AZ


Hybrid Flash Drives

Mark Dulcey

Dorchester, MA



Timothy Beirne

Lacey, WA


"I Thought You Said 'Mouth'"

Michael Rochel

Battle Ground, WA


"A Trusting Company"

James Jerkins

Florence, AL



Wesley Strauss

Jacksonville, FL


Microsoft Visio

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