Will System 7 herald the end of clunky dinosaur programs?

On 13 May Apple released System 7.0. At the same time, some developers should not only have pledged their support, but should also have released some System 7.0-compliant programs.

Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser 05/91 item 02 - scanned

I suppose, if the PC world is anything to go by, a lot of these announcements would just be paying lip-service to the new operating system. Working under a new operating system and taking advantage of it are two different things. Under Windows 3.0, for example, it was possible for some software publishers to achieve compatibility by changing a single byte in the application's header. But a lot of these products took no advantage of Windows 3.0.

Apple's System 7.0 makes some very nice improvements to the user interface. Some of these put right the clunkier aspects of earlier releases, while others are genuine innovations. In my view, System 7.0 is worth having for these user interface changes alone. For example, the Font/DA Mover is dead. It always struck me as a daft idea. Balloon Help, when switched on, gives immediate help on any option.

Aliases allow you to keep imaginary copies of programs, files, folders, servers, hard disks and so on in your system. These are simply pointers which, when activated, give you access to the real thing. They enable you to construct your folders to reflect the way you think rather than the most space efficient way for the applications. Another new option gives you an outline view of folders. These are just a few of the more obvious interface changes.

On the application front, we're going to see a number of improvements, including the ability of programs to directly interact with each other. For example, a word processor can contain a fragment from a spreadsheet and, every time a change occurs in one of the cells, the word processor document reflects the change. Soon, we'll be wondering how we were satisfied with cut and paste.

System 7.0 also makes working in a group a more productive experience. File sharing is built in, allowing users to access each other's files without a centralised server. Until now this was only possible with third-party application software. Users can also work together on documents through the new Publish and Subscribe mechanism. This operates in a variety of ways, but in a common example users all work on their own documents and, as they save their work, the changes are automatically embodied in a master document.

Claris, Apple's own software company, has announced four products which already take advantage of System 7.0 - HyperCard 2.1, MacWrite Pro, Resolve (a new spreadsheet) and MacProject II 2. 5. I suppose one of the good things about being owned by Apple is the way in which information, expertise and product can flow back and forth.

HyperCard was a good example of this. Apple gives the user a taste of the program which is enough to push the power users towards Claris.

Claris isn't daft - it knows it doesn't own the market, so it makes life easy for users moving from other applications. It has file translators called XTND. Now XTND seems just the sort of technology Apple might like to bring back across the divide, for inclusion in the operating system. The only trouble is that it would then make life easier for all those non-Claris software publishers.

That aside, what I like most about System 7.0 is the ability of programs to work with each other. Over the years, software has ballooned in size and complexity. Publishers end up terrifying prospective users with their inflated manuals and inflated prices. What users really want is simplicity coupled with functionality. They want enough features to enable them to do their work, but they don't want to be cluttered with unnecessary complexity.

The hybrid solution is the answer. Let individual programs satisfy particular requirements and then let the users connect them in the way best suited to their needs. Use a word processor to process words and a spreadsheet to perform calculations. With System 7.0's capabilities, there's no need to build hugely complex programs any more. All that's needed is for them to be created with sharing in mind.

Users will expect to buy two or three straightforward programs of reasonable cost, knowing that, bolted together, they will completely satisfy their needs. Why not have a word processor that can work co-operatively with a drawing program and a DTP program? Each could then dispense with its present crude editing facilities.

I sincerely hope that System 7.0 marks the end of the general-purpose dinosaur program which doesn't do anything especially well, and the advent of an era in which users get exactly the functionality they want from co-operating groups of smaller programs.