Sunday, November 27, 2005

Omnigraphics Deal

When The Computer Phonebook was published it apparently caught the eye of a major reference book publisher, Omnigraphics, with offices in Detroit, MI and Fort Lauderdale, FL. After some correspondence and a few telephone calls in late 1996, My wife and I wound up getting invited down to their offices in Florida for a few days to meet with their people and discuss my database and newswire service. Omnigraphics had been publishing all sorts of reference books for libraries and schools but apparently they didn't have much information on the computer industry.

When we got to Florida I thought I was only meeting a few of their key people but actually wound up walking into a large meeting room filled with people and giving a spur of the moment presentation on everything I was doing. It seemed to go over pretty well though and it was great meeting Fred Ruffner, Jr. their company president along with the entire staff of Omnigraphics. Afterwards they offered to buy a one-time non-exclusive license for my current database with periodic updates on a quarterly basis.

My wife had accompanied me on the trip and Omnigraphics arranged for an incredible hotel in Fort Lauderdale. Plus Mr. Ruffner treated us to a tour of the area by boat and a lovely dinner at his home, complete with a local artist playing piano at his home while we ate. It was absolutely an amazing trip that I'll never forget.

There was even a job offer to work for Omnigraphics but it would have involved moving to Fort Lauderdale. My son had just been born and we just weren't interested in moving away from family just then. Sometimes I wonder where that might have led to though. Unfortunately Omnigraphics isn't around any more. It appears they were bought out some time ago by another publisher in Canada from what I could find out.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

PC Industry Phonebook From No Starch Press

Eventually my PC Products Database got noticed by a new book publisher who approached me with a book idea. He had been working for a major book publisher and had decided to start his own publishing company to be called No Starch Press. He had seen my database online and wanted to create a PC industry phonebook that would list companies and contact information from my data.

The book was to concentrate on US and Canadian PC-related companies so we stripped down some of the data and eliminated all of the other foreign entries. Then we spent several months working out the format and exact content of the book. Plus we did a lot of verification work on the phones to double check most of the data.

I also wrote some basic troubleshooting tips and introductory type information. There were hints on how to get the latest drivers and patches, how to use faxback services, working your way through voicemail systems, getting help through online services or on the internet or company bulletin boards, how to use email for direct assistance plus how to find free technical assistance. There was a whole chapter on maintaining and troubleshooting your PC with 15-20 pages of pretty helpful information.

The main company index was around 400 pages with three columns per page that listed over 14,000 companies. That was followed by about 200 pages of information that listed companies by product type. In total, over 600 pages in a small one inch think 5 by 8 inch paperback book that was super handy.

The book went to print in 1996 as The Computer Phonebook (ISBN# 1-886411-03-4) and sold a few thousand copies. Unfortunately the publisher decided there just wasn't enough interest to warrant doing another copy. So that was my one and only copy to be published in print. Still it was a pretty exciting project and it was really great to actually see my name as author for an entire book! In the past, a number of my magazine articles had been published in various books along with other articles in some sort of compilation but this was my first book all to myself.

Friday, November 04, 2005

The PC Products Database Moves to WinHelp

With my PC Products Database on AOL and being distributed in dBase format on CD-ROM I was a little disappointed in that a lot of the information in the database couldn’t be accessed easily in the distributed copies of the data. My data in Superbase had a lot more capability but there just wasn’t any way to get it to others. I started experimenting with WinHelp and found a way to repackage the data in five WinHelp files that could be easily generated and distributed, plus it gave users a lot more access to the data.

I wrote a program in Superbase that allowed me to export the data and automatically create the source files for the WinHelp compiler and then the compiler could create the final WinHelp data files without any other work. It took quite a few hours to run originally but after a few system upgrades it was down to a few hours and the entire process was fully automated. I remember the very first full export and compile taking over 24 hours but eventually is was under 2 hours a year later!

The five files in the WinHelp package included an alphabetical company listing that displayed the addresses, phone numbers and other company contact info with a link to list all of that company’s products from the second file. Both of these files allowed searching by the company name using the standard WinHelp Search feature.

The product index file allowed searching for a specific product by name while the product and company category indexes allowing finding specific products or companies that offered a particular class of product or service. There was a link on each page that allowed quickly changing between displaying the products or companies within each product category. Everything was interlinked – clicking on a company name displayed the company contact info. Clicking on a product name displayed from a product list displayed the company info plus additional product info. The main page allowed selecting between modes/files and how the data was accessed.

Everything was working smoothly with Windows 3.1 and then Microsoft released Windows 95 and the WinHelp system was changed. It turned out that my WinHelp database was the largest set of files being compiled for WinHelp and it uncovered a problem in the compiler that it would get into an endless loop and the compile would never end. I eventually found a work around for the compiler issues and then discovered the search windows in the later WinHelp system were now limited to displaying the first 64k entries when I had over 75,000 entries in one search list. The older WinHelp handled this just fine but the newer WinHelp displayed a blank search window. But there was another work around for this – if you used the original Windows 3.1 winhelp.exe with later versions of Windows everything still worked just fine.

So the WinHelp version of the PC Products Database was eventually included on the CD-ROM produced by EMS Professional Software and everyone had access to much of the capabilities of the full database. The only drawback was that the total package was about 75MB of data for the WinHelp version of the database compared to less than 20MB for the dBase version. By the way, as an added bonus we also started including my news archive files on the CD-ROM from EMS in both standard ASCII text and WinHelp hypertext files. So the CD-ROM and my WinHelp database were all helping to promote the newswire and everything else I was doing at the time.