Classic Computer Magazine Archive CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 10, NO. 10 / OCTOBER 1984 / PAGE S2

How to buy an integrated software package. George Blank.

Last year every software producer was claiming that his software was "user-friendly." This year's glamour term is "integrated." It is much simpler for software to be integrated than it is to be easy to use. All "integrated" implies is that there are two or more functions that work together.

Leaving aside the minimal definition, integration has come to imply more in computer software.

Although integration is claimed for packages that do not meet these standards, we are beginning to expect that integrated software packages will:

* contain several parts that are normally separate application programs.

* share data easily between the parts.

* use a common command set.

Software that meets those three requirements can be, but is not necessarily, more useful than a collection of stand-alone application programs. If the functions are useful in a common task, as spreadsheets and graphics are useful in producing management reports, then people who have to do that task should find it easier to use one program than two. However, people who need only one of the functions may find it easier to use a package that offers only what they need.

Power in software comes at a price. I need a much more powerful word processing program than my wife does. My documentatin writer needs a more powerful program than I do. My wife usually writes only letters and needs a simple program that is easy to learn and use. I use a word processor to write programs. I need to be able to copy and move information easily, especially to take parts of old programs to use in new ones. Our writer prepares software manuals. She needs facilities for processing large documents. I use yet another program for writing articles like this one. It is a little more powerful than my wife's letter writing tool, but easier to use than my programming tool.

If I can't even find a single word processor that will handle all my writing needs, can I expect to find a single integrated program that will handle all my needs? Probably not! It is not enough for an integrated package to "have" the applications you need; it must also be appropriate to your needs and do those applications well.

The second area of concern in integrated software is the ease of sharing data. You should be able to pass data from one application to another as easily as you can copy a sentence from one part of a word processing document to another. There should be no need to access the disk or create a file to go from one application to another. If you do have to create a file, then you should not have to do any intermediate processing of the file.

Sometimes you will configure programs or modify them for special purposes. Modifying programs raises another important issue--copy protection. If I modify a program for a specific purpose, I want to keep it separate from the original. I can not do that if the program is copy protected. If you modify a copy protected program and something goes wrong, you have destroyed the disk. Even without modification, all disks fail eventually, and I am unwilling to make the survival of my business dependent on a few magnetic signals in a layer of rust on a single piece of cheap plastic.

When considering how easy it is to pass data from one module of an integrated package to another, it is also important to consider how easy it is to pass that data to a different application program. I had my company mailing list on Versaform on the Apple II. When my mailing list got too big for Versaform, it was extremely difficult to transfer and convert to another system--so difficult that I eventually abandoned the list. Versaform uses the UCSD operating system, and although I purchased a communications program for that system, I could never get it to work. Therefore, I now avoid the UCSD operating system.

In general, you can expect trouble transferring files between operating systems. Aladin claims to be able to read files from both MS-DOS and the UCSD system. I will never again put a significant amount of information into a system that will not write straight ASCII files onto a common operating system. That way, if the program becomes unsuitable, I can at least move the data, over a modem if necessary, to a new program or a new computer.

The third desirable feature of an integrated software package, a common command set, is subject to more limitations. The purpose of separate applications is to do different things. If a word processor performed the same functions as a database manager, you would need only one of them. Because they do have different functions, however, they need different commands. But there are many functions that are common to different applications, including saving and loading files, asking for help, and simple editing.

Newer computers have dedicated, keys, like the page up page down home, end, insert, and delete keys on the IBM PC. Most applications take advantage of these, and to the extent that they do, there is less need for integrated software. There are even some common uses developing for other keys, such as the FI for a Help key. But it is unlikely that all the keys will acquire standard uses, and until they do, an integrated software package that uses the same keys to do the same tasks will be easier to learn and use than separate applications. But it is more important to have a good command set than it is to have a common command set.

I wish selecting a program could be as easy as asking: "What is the best integrated software package?" There can never be such a package, simply because different people have different needs. Unfortunately, there are two questions to be answered: "What are my needs?" and "Is there an integrated software package that meets my needs?" The most popular integrated software packages have three major functions--spreadsheets, word processing, and data base management--and two supporting functions--graphics and data communications. Some have additional functions as well.

In most cases, one of the three major functions is dominant. If your needs revolve around columns of numbers, you will probably find a package built around a spreadsheet, like Symphony, best for you. If your needs revolve around word processing, a package built around a word processor, like PeachText 5000, might be most useful. You might also want a special purpose integrated package. Perhaps the most ambitious integrated prouct line is Prentice Hall's The Profit Center. It has 21 modules built around an accounting system, which is really a special purpose database.

It is also important to determine if a package has any serious flaws for your application. The day before I wrote this, I was talking to the owner of a Health Food store who keeps his inventory on a TRS-80. With his first inventory package, from Radio Shack, he went to print out a purchase order. Thirty hours later, he pressed the break keys. His Radio Shack salesman told him he had ordered too many items from one supplier!

The most elementary serious flaws are missing features. If you need a spreadsheet, a package like Offix, which doesn't have one, is not the right package for you. If you do financial calculations frequently, you might insist on a spreadsheet that calculates net present value and internal rate of return. But other flaws can destroy the utility of a program. The Silicon Office has many nice features in its word processor. But the response time, including cursor movement through the document, is so slow that I can't bear to use it. The most important rule is: think through your needs thoroughly before you buy.

In general, it is not possible to buy an integrated software package based on either advertisements or reading the manual. During this assignment I wanted to select a package for my own company. Many times I would read a press release, an advertisement, the jacket copy, or a manual and get really excited about a product. The I would start to use it and find it completely unsuitable.

In particular, I am concerned about absence of problems, ease of use, ease of learning, and speed. for that reason, there are several places on the charts that follow in which I offer my judgment on a program rather than an objective score. for example, though I am not a fast typist, I can't use a word processor that drops characters when typing or overshoots when I am moving the cursor through text. The category 'OK for fast typists?' is my assessment of the problems I encountered. (What was my decision for my own company? I haven't decided yet, but I have narrowed the choices down to Symphony: ITSoftware and InteSoft.)