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Software That's Tailor Made

Technology & You


How is software like a steam engine? At the Smithsonian Institution, there's a huge 1876 engine: beautiful, mechanically perfect--and on the brink of obsolescence the day it was built. Within a few years, steam gave way to smaller, more efficient internal-combustion engines and electric motors.

Like this mechanical marvel, today's software packages, such as Microsoft Office and Lotus SmartSuite, may be near the end of an evolutionary line. These programs seem to do everything and do most things well. But there are drawbacks: My installation of Office for Windows 95 fills 60 megabytes of disk space. Much of that space goes for options that a tiny minority of people use, such as indexing in word processors and regression analysis in spreadsheets. One result is a clutter of options that can make the programs harder to use.

CUSTOM PACKAGE. Before too much longer, you may be using an assortment of much smaller applications tied together into a package customized to your needs. For example, you might be able to combine a simple text-editing module with a spell-checker, thesaurus, and other tools to roll your own word processor. "That's what the future will look like," says Jeffrey Anderholm, director of product marketing at Lotus SmartSuite.

A new product for Win95, called OfficeBlox from AlphaBlox (800 227-2569), gives a glimpse of this new world. The $70 product consists of little programs that are designed to augment rather than replace your existing applications. For example, jotting down a phone message in a conventional application requires saving the information as a file. The NoteBlox mini-app lets you type the note, then stick it anywhere--including your desktop--like a Post-it note. Instead of firing up a spreadsheet to crunch some numbers, you can use any of a dozen specialized business, financial, or scientific calculators provided by CalcBlox, then paste the results into documents. Other "Blox" can manage lists of information and provide an easy way to sort and classify your files. And additional modules are on the way.

AlphaBlox relies on a technology called object linking and embedding (OLE), which allows the easy sharing of data among applications. For example, if you used CalcBlox to calculate a number you pasted into your report, just click on the number, and the calculator will pop back up. While OLE has been around for several years, Windows 3.1 had a nasty tendency to crash if you linked more than a couple of programs. OLE is far more stable with Windows 95--and it's even more so with Windows NT and OS/2. Apple Computer is leading an effort called OpenDoc, which would create a common linking standard for different hardware and software.

A lot of work must be done before a collection of modules will replace, rather than augment, today's big applications. For one thing, using the modules will be confusing unless they share similar menus, icons, and buttons and unless they behave in similar ways. And competitors don't much trust Microsoft to make it easy on its rivals. "Will the company driving the de facto standard drive it to its own advantage?" asks Lotus' Anderholm.

Microsoft is ambivalent. Although modular applications are technically possible, says Dennis Tevlin, group product manager for Microsoft's best-selling Office Suite, it's not clear how profitable they would be. Customers, he says, want less complexity, but it's often tough to figure out whether that means programs with fewer options or with more choices offering point-and-click convenience.

Microsoft and Lotus have just revamped their suites, and a new version of Novell PerfectOffice is due this fall. The monster applications are probably good for one more overhaul. But like the museum steam engine, it may be the final perfection before extinction.BY STEPHEN H. WILDSTROM

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