Those searching for information have never had it so good. Since the Internet was developed as a means for sharing data, horizons have expanded to an extent that would have been difficult to imagine even 10 years ago, and it’s solving business problems that would have been almost insurmountable then.

A friend recently told me a story that made me realize how much we’ve come to depend on the technology.

Her company, like many, uses low-end PCs for data entry. It also uses, believe it or not, an MS-DOS-based data entry program. This piece of software has worked fine for years, so they saw no need to spend the money to replace it (assuming they could even find its equivalent).

The vendor has long since gone out of business, so an upgrade was out of the question.

Those old PCs were reaching the end of their road and were finally due for replacement, so my friend loaded the software on a nice, new Windows 2000 machine and fired it up.

It wouldn’t run.

She’d been told the elderly operating systems on the antique computers had to go, and the machines wouldn’t run anything else, so simply finding more old PCs was not an option.

Faced with the prospect of staff being unable to do their work without the company spending a bundle on new software, she keyed the error message into a search engine, fully expecting failure. Miracle of miracles, she discovered a series of newsgroup messages and even a couple of Web pages describing precisely the same issues she was experiencing. Some of them were more than five years old.

She was surprised to see that the problem was not incompatibility with the newer operating system, as she’d suspected. It was, believe it or not, because the PC was too fast.

A bug in the compiler used to build the application created a timing error on fast computers (where “”fast”” was greater than about 200 MHz) and prevented the software from initializing.

After she stopped spluttering, she continued her quest and found that quite a few equally annoyed users had been working on the problem, and several had developed patches.

A few downloads later, her data entry software was happily running on the Windows 2000.

Elapsed time: a couple of admittedly intense hours.

Imagine the same situation, pre-Internet. With the software vendor out of business, there would have been no access to a fix.

The community of users, all in the same boat, would not have had the same scope for information exchange that led to the patches.

Yes, computer bulletin boards (BBSes) and big commercial systems such as CompuServe had active discussion forums, but you couldn’t search across services. If the answer had been on a service to which you didn’t subscribe, you’d never have known that someone had solved your problem. And my friend’s company would have been frantically looking for a new data entry program (another task made much easier by the Internet).

Granted, there’s a horrific amount of garbage and malware on the Web.

My friend carefully virus scanned and tested the patches she downloaded on an isolated machine before setting them loose on production systems — reasonable precautions in any situation.

You can’t trust all of the information you find online, but these days, you can’t easily do without it either.

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