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Infostream
Introduction and Viewpoint
by Rick Smith (November 1993)

Before I begin my first Infostream, I thought I would let you know something about myself. My name is Rick Smith, I'm 38 years old and have been involved in computers for over 20 years and computer graphics since 1973. I have worked on the minicomputers, mainframes and microcomputers. I have owned my own personal microcomputer since 1978. I write software, repair hardware, design computer based systems and train people how to use computers and computer software.

In this column, I will give my viewpoints about industry news, talk about what's happening in the computer and multimedia industry, along with multimedia events and producer profiles.

One concern I have with the software industry is in the lack of consistency between programs. I am currently training a new user of computers and during the first training session, she asked me the question, "How do I get out of a program if I accidentally get into one?". Well, I thought that's an easy question to answer, just quit! But have you ever looked at how many different ways programs have to quit?

In her computer setup, each program is different. To quit her menu program, she needs to press the Esc key until the Exit to DOS ? (Y/N) question is displayed and then she needs to press the Y key. With Quattro Pro in its native mode, she needs to press the / key and then press the Q key. The 123 mode of Quattro is similar to its native mode, but also requires the "Y" key to be pressed. For PFS Professional Write, she needs to press the "E" key. Her tax preparation software also requires her to press the Esc key until the Exit program prompt appears but then she has to press the Enter key. Any wonder that people new to computers think that they are confusing?

And it looks like things may not be getting any better. I recently read about a lawsuit between Borland and Lotus Development over the Quattro spreadsheet program, which is currently on appeal. I have used Lotus for a long time and used VisiCalc before that. When I first used Quattro Pro in its "123" mode it did not "look" and certainly didn't "feel" like good-old Lotus. The menus are vertical instead of horizontal, but the keystrokes were the same. Quattro Pro really didn't feel the same way as Lotus and it slowed me down, but allowed me to use the program. When using the PageDown key to progressively move through a huge spreadsheet, Lotus is much slower and does not access the hard disk drive. Quattro Pro moves much faster, but it occasionally accesses the hard disk. Clearly these programs behave differently.

I'm not sure that the courts really understand the entire picture, so here's something for everyone to think about. Will their decision mean 2 books are the same because they are about the same size, same color and have a similar table of contents? What about 2 dictionaries? After all, they both define the same words in each one and these words are "sequenced and organized" in the same order. Will these now be copyright infringements?

Many of the Windows programs look quite similar, in order to assist the user in learning the software. What will happen to these programs? Other packages are starting to have "hot keys" (see article this month), in order to make them even more efficient. Will lawsuits be started over the "structure" of these programs?

If Borland loses this case, the software learning curve for new user may get even worse. Programmers are now concerned about things like program size, efficiency, more informative help and program functionality (making sure the program works like it should and doesn't crash). In the future, programmers and interface designers will need to search for and create different (not necessarily better) types of program interfaces and different keystroke sequences because they will be more worried about lawsuits, than creating easy to understand software.

I feel that many of these types of lawsuits are started by companies trying to sue their competition away, instead of striving for constant improvement and developing better easier-to-understand software. These lawsuits may cost all of us in the future by having more expensive software and that software will still be confusing to the novice user.

Copyright 1993 Rick Smith All rights reserved.

   
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