Windows 95 Office Suites: Evaluation for Searchers
Rensberger, David, Searcher
My first word processor had I word wrap. The I combination of word wrap and cut and paste seemed the pinnacle of text control. It was -- for about a week. When the next generation of word processors hit the market, they had features that I could not live without, even if I really had no use for all of them at the moment.
When I was asked to review these new bundles of integrated software from the point of view of the professional database searcher and information providing community, I was fascinated. The idea of actually analyzing a software package for its fundamental usability is a novel experience. For 15 years my job has been to take stock packages and provide custom solutions for specific end-user problems.
The literature I acquired, in preparation for this adventure, promised tools of epic proportions -- giant killers, but so simple to use that just a few hints to the user, and a well-placed mouse click would deliver miracles. If the claims were at all accurate, my job was in imminent danger.
The packages arrived, with a few notes of the "watch this space" variety. Some features would not be immediately available but would be "real soon now." There was enough up and running in all these packages to rock me back and slap me silly, all three packages are, at first exposure, overwhelming. Where to start?
Getting the "Specs"
Finding yourself behind the controls of an earth mover is an energizing experience, but sooner or later you have to push some real dirt around. Nobody can identify a pile faster than someone that is up to their neck in it. Time to make a simple phone call to the instigator of this adventure. My cousin, the editor.
"So what exactly is it you people do anyway?" It seemed like a straight up question. "Value added" is, after all, still "value added," no matter what you sell. How complicated could it be? You find stuff, you tweak stuff, you pass it on, and the money flows in. What a racket.
This simple question launched a two-hour monologue, on my nickel, of a general description of what it takes to do what it is she does. It sounded as if the job description falls somewhere between Dungeons & Dragons and Prometheus. After the spring ran down on the other end of the phone, I asked the second question. "So what's the problem?" I figured any self-respecting data provider charging the kinds of prices mentioned would, as a matter of pride, supply a clean data package. After all, I've had cars that cost less than some of the searches she described. This stuff must be stunning in its sophistication. So why is she asking about opening an ASCII capture buffer? "Pull the other one. It's got bells on it," I said. "No one could stay in business providing a product like that. I suppose you are going to tell me next that the real hard part is translating it from the Aramaic."
This kicked off a long dissertation on the major players in the data supplier game and how you deal with them. I know there is a tendency to "puff" in any description of one's adventures, but I began to wonder how Joseph Campbell had missed this Searcher tribe. I needed to see this for myself. The conversation closed with a request to send me some raw sample searches by e-mail attachment. After all, how bad could it really be?
That bad. I always wondered what happened to that "infinite number of monkeys." Now I know. Consistently bad formatting is at least consistent. This stuff was patched, randomly stuck together, and had an air of "Let them eat cake." This, of course, is from an uninitiated view. I'm sure this level of data quality must be acceptable to the majority of data professionals. At least they don't have to carry around those little, wet, clay tablets anymore.
It was time to go to work. These Application bundles had to turn straw into gold.
The Players: Lotus SmartSuite 96, Microsoft Office, and Corel WordPerfect 7 Suite. …