THE MAGIC IS ALL IN THE MIX (column) - component software

Written by David Tebbutt, Computer Buyer 11/91 - scanned

[Software publishers have had it their own way for far too long, says David Tebbutt. He hails the comeback of integrated programs and looks to the user-led environment .]

Can you see any sense in software pricing? I can't. Most of it seems to be based on what publishers think they can get away with. It is especially helpful to a publisher if the world has `standardised' on its product. People are then lumbered with paying the asking price. Even publishers who are not in such a powerful position still manage to come up with programs whose prices are higher than some `no-name' computers.

Budget-conscious users can find good value stuff in the shareware catalogues. I am writing this column on a piece of shareware called PC-Write. It cost me nothing to get the software in the first place, but I did send something like $70 to the US publisher for the right to continue using it after the voluntary trial period. The publisher sent me an excellent manual and some free upgrade vouchers, which kept my copy up to date for a couple of years at no extra charge.

I could have spent as much as £500 on another word processor which, frankly, wouldn't have made me any more productive. The problem is that publishers believe, wrongly, that by chucking in every feature their programmers can conceive, they somehow make their programs more valuable. They also think that by publishing huge and totally unreadable manuals, this also - mysteriously - adds value. It might `add value' for people running `how to use' type courses, but it sure as heck doesn't help the user.

And what about when you want to switch applications on a PC? Just when you've got used to one program's arcane use of the function keys, you find yourself in another program which behaves completely differently.

Yes, there's something seriously wrong in the world of software publishing. Prices for similar functionality range from free (public domain) to whatever the publisher thinks `the market will bear'. Programmers can't agree on which keys are used for what. I'm sure users would rather have an easy life and value for money than over-featured, expensive programs.

I notice the comeback of `integrated programs' has begun. These were all the rage in the early eighties, but went out of fashion because one module or another was always weaker than the others. People ended up duplicating functionality by buying separate, single, applications. In those days, the hardware was fairly expensive so the cost of software wasn't such a big deal. Now, with hardware prices in free fall, users are far more sensitive to software pricing. The integrated package is one way of addressing the problem. It also has the benefit of encouraging the user to buy from the same publisher if they ever need more powerful applications.

I don't think that publishers have gone far enough. What's needed is a move away from separate applications and towards a single working environment - one in which all the application tools are available all the time.

Where's the sense of abandoning one application and going into another just because you want to do something different?

Let's say you were writing at the computer and you suddenly wanted to draw something, why not just do it, there on the page or, if you wanted to, in a separate window. Why have the rigmarole of changing applications?

Or what if you were painting something on the screen and suddenly had the urge to use a drawing tool that previously existed only in your drawing package? Without exporting and importing files between the two applications (and ignoring compatibility problems) this would be impossible. How about a computer environment in which all the tools capable of making marks in a document were available all the time?

In other words, the software publishing business needs to think of itself less as the provider of ready-built applications, and more as the provider of tools with which the user can create the environment of their choice. You switch on your machine and off you go - communications, word processing, spreadsheeting, painting, drawing, CAD - all are available to you instantly. You open a document and you stick in anything you like. You can mix painting with CAD with word processing with a communications session. Or you can keep them all separate, as you do now. The difference is that you have the choice.

So where's the benefit for you, apart from the fact you have a `modeless' way of working? Well, for a start, publishers would have to cooperate on standard ways of doing things. That would make for an easy life for you because you'd need only learn how to do something once. Systems like Macintosh, NeXTStep and Windows have moved in this direction, but they haven't gone all the way.

Then there's the price of things. You want a paintbrush that paints various types of tartan - you could go to the software shop and buy it for, say, a tenner. Or maybe you'd like 3D pie charts but don't much care for histograms or scatter plots - fine, don't pay for them; just buy the charting tools you want.

Software publishers are going to have to be dragged into this new world by user demand. Object-oriented systems are the magic key that will unlock this new approach to software publishing. And if today's software dinosaurs don't adapt, then we can look forward to a new publishing industry which has the needs of the users much closer to its heart.

I can't wait.