Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 12/83 item 01 - scanned


Here's a paradox which needs to be resolved before the software business can move forward with any degree of confidence: "The perceived value of software is in inverse proportion to its cost of development. "

I have been mugging up quite a bit on the so-called fifth generation of computers. These are going to be wonderful systems, by all accounts. In extreme cases, people may not even be aware that they are using computers. The user interface or MMI (man-machine interface) is going to be so slick that people won't even realise that there is a man machine interface. It will recognise natural language and, before the project has run its course, spoken form too. In fact, one of the most commonly-trotted-out examples of the fifth generation in action is a voice-controlled typewriter. I find it hard to imagine people still wanting to use typewriters when surrounded by all the new electronic office gizmos. Anyway, computers and their programs are going to become very easy to use and I think that most people in the software business have accepted this inevitable trend and are making their programs as simple to operate as they can. And therein lies a problem.

Make a program so easy to use that it requires no documentation, and you reduce the perceived value of the package. Okay, so it doesn't need documentation, but to achieve this you probably spent an arm and a leg on extra programming effort, far more than you might have spent on explanatory manuals. Make a program so compact that it optimises the use of memory and, once again, you reduce the perceived value of the package. In other words, you do what is the best thing by the users and all you do is discourage them from paying an ordinary price for what is, after all, an extraordinary program. Add to this the fact that, without documentation you greatly facilitate unauthorised copying and you wonder why software writers and publishers are still bothering.

People will pay more for an automatic car despite the fact that it's easier to use. This is because they can see that there's a complicated box responsible for all the gear changing. The trouble with software is that it is hard to visualise how it can cost more when you are actually walking out of the shop with less: less documentation and less program code. Production costs of such a package are certainly reduced by a few pounds but, when you're looking at an average business program of between 250 and 300, it doesn't really change much. The reason business packages are priced thus is because they usually cost more to develop, market and support, and also because there are fewer buyers than for other types of package. Because there are relatively few buyers of business computers and software these days, dealers want to keep the margins on software as high as possible. This is achievable but it requires the resolution of our paradox.

I know I'm hopelessly biased and I'd be interested in your genuinely held views on the subject but I do feel that we should encourage a shift from the "well it's easy to use so it can't be that good" to a more sensible "that's so easy to use I don't mind paying a bit of a premium for it " .

Am I mad? Perhaps you think that a program which took five person-years to develop should cost less than one which took only three years? Should we deliberately make our programs large, unwieldy and difficult to use simply so that people feel that they're getting something for their money? Make an honest attempt to compare WordStar with Spellbinder and tell me which is the easiest to use. Could WordStar be winning the race because Spellbinder seems too easy? Who knows? (The truth is probably that the Spellbinder people made some enormous marketing cock-ups, but that's another story.)

What's it going to be like when the fifth generation stuff comes on stream? The programs will have taken tens, maybe hundreds, of person-years to develop. They'll do their job quickly and efficiently with an absolute minimum of effort on the part of the user. Will we see an extension of today's attitudes or will people be prepared to accept that, as the effort required of them diminishes, so the effort that went into the programming must have increased? And having recognised that, will they be prepared to pay? They've got to. If they don't, then they will find that there isn't a lot of decent software around as the writers give up the uneven struggle.

The answer lies in our hands. We are all responsible for helping users appreciate why they must pay more for a lower material content but a higher intellectual content of their software purchases.