Use of graphical screens and a package for networking are the latest trends.
Without software, PCs would be hi-tech ornaments - simply boxes of electronics on the desktop. But program them with the right set of instructions and they will leap into action. However, choosing applications software can be a very time-consuming task. And once it is installed you may have to spend long hours wading through fat manuals learning how to use it. Small wonder that, in the past, most users have restricted themselves to a couple of key applications.
This narrow view of software is beginning to change thanks largely to the advent of friendly graphical screens. Instead of computer hieroglyphics, users now get menus of options to choose from or a graphical representation of an office, complete with filing cabinet, documents, calculator and waste bin. Merely point to the screen or manipulate the desktop mouse and the machine obeys.
Graphical screens were pioneered by Apple on its Macintosh computer, and have become widespread via the Windows operating system from Microsoft. The graphics cast all applications in the same visual mould, making new software much easier to grasp. The result has been to awaken interest in a much wider range of applications programs, according to Andi Baul-Lewis, research analyst at IDC. 'Windows users tend on average to have four applications per PC, compared with only 2.5 under the previous operating system, DOS.' The biggest trend for the next two years will be increased use of Windows, Baul-Lewis says. 'Lots of companies are standardising on it.'
Ironically, the relatively slow pace of change in the UK has put it ahead of the US in the Windows race. This is because most US companies upgraded their PCs more than a year ago when desktop machines were less powerful. Huge price cuts since mid-1992 have enabled UK companies to move to the next generation of PCs based on the Intel 486, priced around £1,000. These machines are much more suitable for running Windows. 'The UK has effectively leap-frogged the US,' says Baul-Lewis.
But PCs used in isolation on individual desktops are simply personal productivity tools. The big push in the software industry at present is the development of programs designed to enable people to collaborate electronically in teams. Dubbed 'groupware', these programs run on PCs linked in networks. John Landry, chief technology officer at Lotus, one of the leading suppliers, says: 'Groupware is bigger than any revolution I've talked about in 20 years of software. Desktop PCs and work-stations are no longer merely computing devices, but communications tools. Companies and their staff will be able to collaborate in a way they never could before.'
Networking helps reduce software costs because fewer licences serve a greater number of people. Moreover, vast discounts are possible. Peugeot saved more than $6 million when it bought 14,000 copies of Quattro Pro, a spreadsheet from Borland, for $700,000 - the list price was $495 per copy. But there are other costs in networking, warns Peter Lines, managing director of Input Europe, a software consultancy. 'You need far more central management than if all your staff are looking after themselves and paying for what they want out of petty cash.' The network can also become quite complex and vulnerable. 'Costs can soon escalate out of control, especially if several hundred PCs are involved,' Lines says. For example, 99.9% reliability on a standalone PC multiplies up to just 60% reliability once you have 500 PCs on a network. A recent study of top US companies showed that internal company networks failed on average 23.6 times a year, costing almost $3.5 million in lost productivity. Banks are now budgeting up to $1,300 a year for each user to support them on networks.
Whether or not your software is networked, the chances are that every six months or so you will be offered an upgrade. Do not automatically succumb. Many users only need a small proportion of the functions available on their present versions. Keep abreast of software developments that might improve your organisation's efficiency, but do not look for instant solutions. Software is not a panacea, warns Lines, who believes that suppliers are increasingly encouraging customers to seek 'spray-on technological aphrodisiacs' that will make their companies instantly attractive and successful. Software is only a tool. You have got to be able to apply it properly. The advice from experts is caveat emptor.