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Reprinted from Byte, issue 4/1983, pp. 6-8.

Apple’s new Lisa epitomizes the state of the art in computer sophistication and ease of use. Its integrated software and mouse make this machine a harbinger of what’s in store for microcomputers. These new advances mean serious business.

Software companies, for one, appear to be staking their future on products that feature video windows, which allow various projects to appear on the video screen simultaneously, and the mouse, a hand-held box-shaped device that provides an alternative to the computer keyboard. Many new products announced in the past few months are incarnations of what has become known as integrated software. The microcomputing industry is at the threshold of a new trend in user-friendly, human-engineered software – a trend spurred by new technologies and rising product development costs.

New technologies, particularly 16-bit processors and inexpensive computer memory, make more sophisticated software possible. Increased sophistication, however, means higher development costs, which are inevitably passed on to the consumer. Manufacturers, however, see a solution in easy-to-use software. By making such software, they expect to reach a boarder market base; with more potential buyers, the price per unit remains generally affordable.

Why Human-Engineered Software?

This move toward easy-to-use software is the result of a chain of events and influences. We begin with the 16-bit microprocessors, which have been around for several years. Their main contribution is that they have given the ambitious programmer some elbow room. Eight-bit processors are inherently limited by their 64K-byte address space and this in turn imposes restrictions on a programmer’s creativity. Granted, clever hardware design and programming can often get around this storage problem, but only up to a point. On the other hand, with 16-bit (and larger) microprocessors capable of addressing millions of bytes of data, programmers have ample room in which to do their work.

Prototype of Visicorp’s Visi On integrated applications environment. Note the multiple video windows and mouse. Since this photo was taken, Visicorp has changed to a two-button mouse.
This image can be zoomedPrototype of Visicorp’s Visi On integrated applications environment. Note the multiple video windows and mouse. Since this photo was taken, Visicorp has changed to a two-button mouse.
The second link in this chain of events is the decreasing cost of mass storage devices and, in particular, computer memory. Only within the last year has memory become inexpensive enough to be used without manufacturers worrying too much about how additional memory will increase the price of the unit. Now that larger memories are affordable and are becoming standard, software companies must decide how they’ll use the extra memory to its maximum potential. This brings us to the third link in this chain, which involves a choice to be made by software developers: they can create either computationally more powerful programs or easier-to-use programs. Both options have their advantages, but most companies are going with the latter for one reason: they are courting the average person who is being introduced to computers and their many uses through advertisements on television and in the print media. These people are the new computer users.

Why is this new computer user so important? First of all, the general public is just becoming aware of software and how it can make a computer work for them. Thinking that a lucrative software market is beginning to open, each company understandably wants to get its foot in the door first with these new users. These companies are hoping that once people buy one of their packages, they are likely to consider them for their future software needs.

The far more compelling reason for courting this new user via easy-to-use software is cost. As the complexity of software goes up, so do the costs associated with designing, programming, testing, and documenting it. To keep these added costs from increasing the product’s price and decreasing its potential market, software houses have realized that they must expand their market. Programs using current software technology will sell to only those people who currently use microcomputers. If, on the other hand, software designers use this extra power to make programs that are both powerful and easy to use, they can expect to sell to the potentially huge market of “software-hungry” users, thus vastly increasing the market for their product. The extra production costs would (they hope) be spread over such a large group that the extra cost per program sold would rise only slightly.

The Big Question

The big question is “What makes software easy to use?” Microsoft and Visicorp are firmly committed to the mouse and the desktop-manager concept as the answer. Microsoft will incorporate a mouse and window-management system into advanced versions of its Multitool series of packages (Multiplan is its first such package). Visicorp stole some of Apple’s thunder when it previewed Lisa-like features on the IBM Personal Computer at Comdex last fall with a package called Visi On (see photo). Visi On, which is billed as an “integrated applications environment,” has a two-button mouse and can support multiple tasks running in separate windows. Note that these software companies are putting great emphasis on a hardware device (the mouse) that will add between $150 and $250 to the cost of some of their products; this fact alone indicates the depth of these companies’ commitment to the future.

However, the real answer to the question posed in the previous paragraph is that nobody knows what will make software easy to use. Apple, Microsoft, and Visicorp each has its own option. Other companies, of course, have other solutions (for an excellent discussion of some different plans, see Phil Lemmons’ BYTE West Coast, “Hard Choices for Software Houses,” on page 242).

The air is already filled with claims and promises about the merits of each company’s products, but nobody knows what makes software easy to use; the final answer will be in what the people buy.

by Gregg Williams (Senior Editor)

Page added on 15th November 2003.

Copyright © 2002-2006 Marcin Wichary, unless stated otherwise.