The Next Big Thing

31 Jan, 2002 By: Michael Dakan

In the computer press, much of the chatter about software development tries to identify the "next big thing"— the next killer application that will create a new generation of computer millionaires. What do you think that killer app will be? More to the point, what do you think it should be? All too often the next big thing is driven more by software marketing and sales considerations than by the genuine needs and desires of software users.

The last "next big thing" was probably something related to the Internet, or perhaps the Internet itself, if you consider only those really big things that have happened in computing in the last five to ten years. But I wonder how much all the development money and design effort that has gone into creating Internet compliance, and then Internet integration, has really benefited software users.

What drives software design?

I believe that most of the hype generated in the latter phases of the dot-com stock market hysteria came from Wall Street analysts who bought into their own grossly exaggerated stock valuations. The analysts then convinced the marketing and money folks at software companies to forget their traditional products and services and somehow transform into an Internet company, whatever that meant. It was the New Economy vs. Old Economy, if you remember that phase of the dot-com trajectory.

This in turn brought you such things as the AutoCAD Today start-up interface and a direct connection from your CAD software to an Internet portal and a collaborative data-sharing site. I don't know about you, but I never met a user who was begging Autodesk for those features before they were made an integral part of the software. I've since met very few people who use these features regularly and feel they derive a tremendous amount of benefit from them in pursuing their daily work activities.

I don't totally dismiss the value of the Internet linked to application software, nor do I claim that these features are not useful at all. But at the time these kinds of features were first made available, most users would have ranked them low on their wish lists. Certainly, some users derive some benefit from them, but the development time and resources used to create them could have been better spent elsewhere. Many people would love to have the nice detailed drawing-access history that is part of the Today interface, for instance. But most of us would rather use it as part of a traditional File Open dialog box, not integrated with an often painfully slow and unreliable Internet connection start-up.

Access to collaborative data-sharing sites is helpful to a certain percentage of CAD users and has proven to be time-efficient in fast-track design circumstances. In my experience, though, most companies that set up such sites use them in pretty much the same way that they once used simple FTP sites, albeit with a slightly easier and nicer browser-based front-end.

What's on your wish list?

Now that we're past the hype and hysteria of the last big thing, and with a little time on our hands due in no small part to the spectacular crash of some of those development initiatives, let's give some serious consideration to where CAD vendors should concentrate their near-future development efforts. My list includes the following:

Ease of use. Vendors should spend a great deal of effort on creating simpler and easier-to-use CAD software. We've heard much on this topic from CAD marketers, but when the marketing rhetoric comes close to being accurate, it's because of limitations on what the software can create and from a hard-coded lack of control over the results.

This is not an easy problem—there's an inherent contradiction between a demand for more comprehensive and controllable results from CAD software and the desire for simplicity. I do believe, though, that with more time and effort spent on intelligent user-interface design and on streamlining functions to eliminate redundancies and unnecessary motions (and features that "demo well" but don't work properly in real-world situations), CAD programs could be much simpler than they currently are.

Yes, we want and need it all: increased functionality and increased simplicity at the same time. It may not be easy, but the vendor that provides it will surely create both software millionaires and satisfied and loyal users.

Training. With the ever-increasing complexity of the results we demand from our CAD software, we need much better training tools to teach users how to get the best results from it. Most tutorials that come with CAD software, and the vendor-provided on-line training courses I've seen, barely cover the basics. We don't need instructions on how to do the simple stuff—we need help with the difficult and complicated tasks. Simplistic tutorials might satisfy marketers' desire to present an easy-to-use facade for the software and at the same time provide a nice canned demo script for salespeople, but they don't really help train users.

I've read several opinions lately that the "next big thing" in computing will be in the general area of on-line training and continuing education. I think there's a good possibility that this will prove correct. Higher education, along with continuing education and retraining for employees, is a multi-billion dollar business. Most educational institutions are rapidly offering an increased range of off-site and distance-learning opportunities.

Documentation. My list also includes improved general software documentation and on-line help. This documentation should be prepared by someone who not only has access to the programmers and can parrot the technical jargon that explains functions, but also has some knowledge and appreciation of the real-world tasks that users may be trying to accomplish when they encounter a need for help.

This flies against the decreased-cost- of-documentation direction that most software developers have taken in the last few years. Documentation and tutorials decline significantly in quality and usefulness as vendors spend less to produce and deliver them. From the end users' perspective, this is not a good place to save development money.

Tell them about it

It's easy to pick out a few things about your CAD software that you want your vendor to improve, as I've done here. But you also must make your needs known to the developers. Let them know that you will back up your wish list with your wallet when it comes time to buy new or upgrade your existing software. If you currently have a little downtime and are freed a bit from constant daily support pressures, you might spend some effort to communicate your wishes for the next generation of CAD software to the appropriate people in your developer's organization. Otherwise, you can only react to what developers decide to give you. The same people who brought you the rocket-trajectory rise and crash of the last "next big thing" will probably give you something that they think can generate marketing and sales hype, but that may have little to do with your real-world business needs. Make your needs and wishes known.

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