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The Works Concept

[This is an introduction to Matthew’s full review of ClarisWorks, which will be a special issue immediately following this weekly issue. Keep an eye out for it! -Adam]

The works program – a single application combining several functions – has long been a strange and orphaned beast. The idea of a program which seamlessly (and at low-cost) integrates a variety of types of data is an appealing one. If perfectly executed, the works concept would be the perfect implementation of the basic Macintosh philosophy: the computer interface should be an easy-to-use and intuitive tool that builds on consistency to make the work process simpler.

The basic concept is not unique to the Macintosh or even to microcomputers. The lack of easy integration of both data and tools – standards is another word – might be considered the fundamental problem of computing technology since its inception. Differing file formats and types of data have been a consistent bugaboo for end users, as have the frustrations of learning different tools and interfaces for performing the same tasks across different applications. One need only look at the otherwise inexplicable continuing popularity of DEC’s All-in-One or any set of Microsoft products as evidence that any solution promising integration is preferable to none in some environments. In fact, one of the most popular programs in history was AppleWorks on the Apple II, which some estimate to have sold over four million copies since 1984.

The works concept is entering its third era on the Macintosh. The first era was completely defined by Microsoft Works, the first, and until recently, the only integrated product. Considering the paucity of Mac products on the market at the time, Microsoft Works came as a great revelation. In the pre-MultiFinder days, people wishing to work on word processing and a spreadsheet at the same time could use Works. Works quickly grabbed a huge market share, to the point where even in 1992 Macworld lists Works as the number four bestselling Mac application (behind Word, Microsoft Office, and Excel) [according to Macworld Jan-92 p. 286. Interestingly enough, Works fell to sixth in May and eleventh in July.]. But in typical fashion, Microsoft sat on its big fat market share and on further Works development for five years. A set of tools once revolutionary now seem childishly simplistic. Only the inherent inertia and resistance to change among the typical computer user has kept Microsoft Works alive at all.

MultiFinder ushered in the second era of works on the Mac. With the maturation of MultiFinder in System 6 and the coinciding drop in memory prices, buying more than one application and running them simultaneously became practical. Users had access to a wider variety of choices for individual "modules" under MultiFinder, and software publishers began to allow formatted exports and imports to file formats of their competitors. (In my opinion, APDA’s push of XTND and easy file exchange is the single most important development for Mac applications in the era between MultiFinder and System 7.) Microsoft Works became far less attractive to people needing a full featured spreadsheet or word processor but having little or no need for one of the other modules.

We’re now in the midst of a works renaissance of sorts, with the release of three new works programs – ClarisWorks, BeagleWorks, and GreatWorks, and the announcement of the development of Microsoft Works II. I’m not sure how four companies suddenly decided that the time was ripe to develop new generations of works programs, but I suggest some possible reasons:

  1. There’s no real reason for a Works program, but software developers couldn’t ignore Microsoft’s continuing profits from Microsoft Works.
  2. With the migration of major word processing, spreadsheet, and database programs to high-memory, large disk-space, and zippy-processor Macintoshes (cf. Word 5.0, Excel 4.0, FileMaker Pro, et al.) a new market has emerged for the still-lively installed base of low-end Macs.
  3. The introduction of the already immensely popular PowerBook line has created a new need for a low-memory, small disk-space "notetaking" integrated application.
  4. The idea of integrating data and tools under one application is basically a good one and is receiving new life on its own merit.

The commercial motivations for developing the new works products are probably some combination of the above factors, and your reason for buying a works program likely corresponds closely to one of the following:

  1. You’ve been using Microsoft Works and are dying for something better.
  2. You need to keep up with how the high-end users use the Mac, but you’re stuck with a low-end computer.
  3. You have a PowerBook and need to run more application types than you have disk space or memory.
  4. You like the idea of a single, low-cost, easy-to-use application and you don’t need most of the fancy features of high-end programs.

The Future of Integration — The constraints of the works concept in its current incarnation – low cost, low memory requirements, and low disk space requirements – demand that the individual modules of a works program represent "low-end" applications. This shouldn’t necessarily be so, but most developers seem to be relying on System 7’s Publish & Subscribe and Apple Events technologies as the future of application integration. Indeed, the Communications Toolbox is an early model of the operating system providing a mix-and-match supporting framework for users supplying their own customized tools. The future of application software will probably be modular, much as the future of programming itself is object-oriented. In the meantime, the new generation of works program deserves some consideration if you find yourself in one of the situations described above.

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