Richard Edgerton | 5 April 2013
Applications designed for the end user can occupy two market sectors juxtaposed to each other and yet intrinsically linked.
My first car was a Triumph Dolomite (online search for those
that don't know) and as soon as I had it the Haynes ® manual was
purchased. Lengthy reading undertaken to understand how to take
components apart and put them back together again in a working
state. Maintenance was understood and carried out. I knew how it
It wasn't a flashy motor. Four gears (the HL had overdrive), chrome all over the place, wood on the dashboard and real carpet hiding the holes in the floor. Nostalgia means the memories of the vehicle are warm and glowing and somehow comforting. The fact that it was held together by rust and had its own agenda for working as required is by the by.
This all seems a far cry from the cars of today where we open them from the other side of the supermarket car park (why?), get in and turn the key to let all the electronic gismos do their stuff. Press the pedal and away we go with all mod cons available. What happens if it doesn't start? Do you reach for the phone or get the manual out? My guess is the phone is the option but not necessarily out of choice. We just do not or cannot understand what happens under the bonnet. Chances are it needs a fully certified dealer to change the bulb in the headlight.
Applications we use daily on a PC seem to have followed a similar development path to the car. Not everyone had them and they were costly as well as providing what now appears to be a limited functionality. They were
often flaky and suffered from not infrequent moments of seemingly irrational behaviour. Word processors often exhibited surprising traits displacing whole sentences and tables would sit resolutely refusing to move if you needed to add some text above them.
The PCs of old and their applications would often right themselves with a little patience and usually a restart. Software houses would publish detailed manuals identifying known behaviours and their associated workarounds.
Gradually, applications have increased in capability and stability like the car but if they go wrong we usually don't have a clue how to rectify a fault let alone identify it. Often it's a complete reinstallation required. Something similar to a scratched headlamp lens. No part can be replaced just the whole unit.
We have also come to expect the applications to do more for us. In the main this is what we want and need. Let's say you've got a large table of data sitting in Excel and you need to summarize it in a Pivot Table. The ability to do this easily in Excel 2013 is just amazing as it recommends the most appropriate layout and field settings. I can buy a car like this by picking options recommended on a web site and then all I need to do (apart from paying of course) is wait for the product to be delivered.
Now using the off the shelf functionality is just what it is designed for but what if you need to alter the Pivot Table or perhaps add calculated fields. The tools might appear on the ribbon when the Table is selected but there are no instructions. We have no understanding of what we are actually using.
We have here an example of possible upsides and downsides of the same functionality. I am not suggesting that we all remove these advanced versions of the applications and I for one do not want to drive the Dolomite again. It steered in diagonals anyway.
There is a sector in the car market that caters for those that want a very simple approach. No frills just a product that is simple to use and still has good engineering. Another sector wants all the frills that can be stuffed into the product and are prepared to pay for that.
If we take a simplistic look at applications. High end office suites with all the latest in technological wizardry are readily available which offer brilliant resources, ground breaking engineering and yet require limited understanding of how they work. At the other end we see the simple and yet still required functionality that something like a web based application can offer.
Two market sectors that happily co-exist that are similar and yet can offer so much that is different. They will share fundamentals in terms of origin and often basic designprinciples. Same is true of course of a car from 50 years ago to one new off the drawing board today.
The challenge to us as application users is which sector is the most appropriate to select from. I suspect both will be needed from time to time.