Usefulness of apps has gotten lost in all the razzmatazz

Be truthful: Have computers made your office more productive? Or do you and your
co-workers spend most of your time upgrading software, learning new versions, and seeking
or providing help?


Computers certainly have boosted productivity for government scientists and engineers
who deal with big numbers. Computers are essential to their work.


Not every worker can say the same. As a writer and researcher, I'm far more productive
today than I was with a typewriter, but that isn't true for every writer, even
technologically literate ones.


Isaac Asimov, for example, wrote hundreds of books but never managed to use computers
effectively. We probably missed out on a few books he could have written in the time he
wasted on computers, which just didn't fit his work style.


Many other people probably are in the same situation, but they work in offices that
force them to use computers.


Subtracting out the system crashes, training sessions and time squandered playing
around, it's debatable whether most workers can even do clerical tasks more efficiently
with computers.


I see two basic problems: Current software doesn't fit real tasks, and people don't
learn how to use their computers right. At first glance, both claims might sound absurd.


Office suites, to take just one example, have thousands of features, so it should be
possible to fit them to users' real needs. And as for not knowing how to use computers,
what about all that training time agencies invest in?


In my view, feature creep and training budgets are the problem, not the solution.


When word processing first arrived on the office scene, users needed training to learn
to do only a few things: delete characters, run a spell check, and save and open files.
Those functions were all I needed to write six books and 11,000 shorter pieces.


Given graphical interfaces, people now learn to perform those basic functions in about
an hour, but that's not all they have to learn anymore.


Why does the latest suite word processor from Microsoft Corp. or Corel Corp. include
more than 1,000 functions? What do the workers in your office do that needs to be so much
more complex? The same goes for spreadsheets and databases. The average user ought to be
able to work with them within a day, not a week or a month.


Nevertheless, all users are forced to learn almost 1,000 functions they will never
need. It's like squeezing a 747 jet's control cabin into your car. You won't ever use most
of the controls, and you might not even manage to drive at all without constant support.


Before most users even become productive enough on an office suite to write a memo,
they must deal with minor or major suite upgrades.


If you've read other columns, you know I'm no candidate for president of the Luddite
Federation. Some people need advanced software, but does everybody? The Federal Aviation
Administration and the IRS might need new computer systems, but not the average typist.


If you're a manager, take a moment to calculate how much of your time is wasted
upgrading software and dealing with bugs, crashes and lost files. How long did you spend
retraining a worker who first learned WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3 in the 1980s?


I bet hundreds of hours have been invested just to keep that one worker as productive
in new applications as he or she was two weeks after learning the original programs.


Agencies have enough to do without creating more work through useless upgrades.


Feature-bloated programs are essential to the cash flow of software publishers, and
they drive the appetite for faster hardware, but too many people buy into the game. Are we
replacing PCs and software far more often than our productivity can justify?


Are "improved" programs and faster PCs actually impeding productivity? The
economy won't collapse if programmers spend less time inventing useless bells and
whistles. Instead, we should demand that they come up with friendlier apps, networks that
actually work and software that has fewer bugs than a swamp in July.


Network computers were supposed to cut maintenance and training costs but, to coin a
phrase, "It's the software, stupid." It's not the computer.


NC software will still be relatively complex, and upgrades will be forced rather than
optional, so NCs are no panacea even if they do reduce support costs.


Another big productivity problem is management-related, not technical. It has gotten so
easy to develop fancy presentations and publications that thousands of users waste their
work time on beautification.


Requiring workers to hand-draw presentation slides with a marker might save thousands
of hours per year in an average agency.


Managers could free up thousands more work hours if they fined people for putting
nonessential charts or images into documents and choosing more than two font sizes.


But you won't get much of a productivity boost out of moving workers from WordProcessor
Version 2.01 to WordProcessor Version 2.04.


John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with
computers since the early 1960s. E-mail him at powerusr@penn.com.


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