A Great Leap For Software And Business

Computers are often hard to relate to, frustrating a lot of people. Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintosh, with its graphical symbols, was an important first step toward greater "user-friendliness." But now, a new technology just coming into vogue, called object-oriented programming, promises to stretch the Mac's inviting appeal a Brobdingnagian step further, revolutionizing software as we know it.

The technology is based on the creation of intelligent pieces of software known as objects. Such software can represent anything in the physical world, from a bond in an investment portfolio to a planet in the solar system. By building complex software out of objects, people are able to model business and scientific events in a way that nontechies can understand.

The promise of object-oriented programming is enormous. By making computers far more accommodating, it should spur new demand at a time when computer-industry growth has slowed. But that's not all. There's already evidence that object programming can help corporate computing departments reduce the outlandish amounts of money and time spent on creating their own programs. That could spell substantial savings, since corporations now spend most of their information-technology budgets on software-about 60% more than they spend on hardware, according to market researchers. To be sure, converting to object-oriented software will require people to switch away from some of the software they are now using. That may cause disruption and require massive investment.

But if it makes software cheaper to create and easier to use, it's an investment that could pay for itself many times over. The benefits of lower-cost, higher-quality software for everything from automobiles to nuclear reactors are obvious. Equally important, however, is the significance of object technology in keeping the U.S. lead in software. While Japan and other Asian competitors have seized the lead in many kinds of hardware-from memory chips to laptop pcs-U.S. companies have managed to retain their edge in software, largely because of the creativity of American programmers. Object-oriented programming should keep the U.S. industry ahead-by making its programming geniuses efficient, too.