Macworld Magazine, February 1994

The Desktop Critic by David Pogue


The Test of Time

A decade of products that keep on ticking—or don't


Yep, the Mac is ten years old — as measured in people years. In dog years, that’s 70. But in technology years, it’s more like 700 years.


If you doubt my math, try to imagine the world of Macintosh a decade ago. Macworld editorials complained that “a fully loaded System folder can easily weigh in at 200K.” Programs called MacSpell, Multiplan, and Lode Runner roamed the earth. “The Love Boat” was still on the air.


Oh, the progress we’ve made! Oh, the richness of choice we have today! Oh, the money we’ve blown on programs we never use! This is no industry for the weak-kneed; of the 101 companies whose products were listed in an early MacConnection ad, 84 are now out of business. (Surprise! Microsoft is still doing fine.)


What determines whether a product will survive? This month, I thought it might be instructive to have a look at a handful of products that have remained on the market into the Mac’s second decade. And a few that didn’t.


And how did I select the products? Was it a scientific lab evaluation? A strategic demographic overview? A careful representative survey?


Nah. I picked whatever I felt like.





Born: January 1985, by Forethought, at $199.

Sold today by: Claris, as FileMaker Pro 2.1, at $399.


History: Believe it or not, FileMaker started out as the Mac version of a DOS program by Leading Edge. But that farseeing company scoffed at the notion of Macintosh software, choosing to bank instead on the hot new computer from IBM — a little number called the PCjr.


The four programmers, ex-Wang employees calling themselves Nashoba Systems, therefore struck a deal with a tiny publisher called Forethought. The program, FileMaker, was the 23rd Mac product brought to market. When Microsoft gobbled up Forethought in 1987, it made Nashoba a paltry offer for FileMaker. (Microsoft obviously didn’t want FileMaker to outshine its own powerhouse database program, the now-deceased Microsoft File. I tell ya — this industry is just full of farseeing executives.)


Nashoba reclaimed the program, sold it under the company’s own name for a year, and finally (in 1988) succumbed to a lucrative offer from Claris. The program, then called FileMaker Four, was renamed FileMaker II, to the complete confusion of everybody everywhere.


Key to longevity: FileMaker had plenty of worthy competition in its early days: such forgotten classics as MacLion, PFS:File, and 1stBase. But FileMaker took full advantage of the Mac’s graphic possibilities. Furthermore, FileMaker offered nonpermanence: you could change your mind about anything at any time. Contrast this with programs like PFS:File, which, when you tried to change the layout of your information, warned that “you may lose some or all of your data.”





Born: August 1987, by Raymond Lau, at $15.

Sold today by: Aladdin Systems, as StuffIt Deluxe 3.0, at $120. (A shareware version is still priced at $25.)


History: StuffIt’s original programmer wasn’t exactly a grizzled veteran of personal computing; when Raymond Lau wrote this classic file-squeezer, he was 15 years old. Lau wrote the program for his own use, never suspecting that his little after-school experiment would become a lucrative data-highway juggernaut.


Within a year, StuffIt was the standard for Mac compression. Lau wanted time for side activities (such as going to MIT and having a life). He offered StuffIt to Software Ventures, whose leaders (adhering to the tradition of Failing to Know a Good Thing If It Bites You) turned it down. In 1989 productless Aladdin Systems saw the light and took this shareware-program-that-could commercial.


Key to longevity: At the time of StuffIt’s introduction, the only Mac compression program was PackIt. Lau’s program was faster, compressed tighter, and preserved the folder structure of the compressed files. On top of all this, the thing was shareware (and if you only wanted to unstuff files, it was free).


No doubt about it: if you want your program to become a standard, nothing beats (1) making it better than the competition and (2) giving it away.




Aldus PageMaker

Born: July 1985, by Aldus, at $495.

Sold today by: Aldus, as PageMaker 5.0, at $895.

Key to longevity: Oh, good Lord, we all know why PageMaker made it big. It was the first page-layout program for the Mac, right? Early bird gets the worm. Actually, nope. PageMaker was the third page-layout program (after MacPublisher and ReadySetGo). What made it the colossal, industry-changing success it is today was. as Aldus president Paul Brainerd puts it, “a three-legged stool: the hardware, good luck, and timing.”


The hardware, of course, was the LaserWriter. In yet another case of executive myopia, there was a movement inside Apple to kill the LaserWriter project. Who’d buy a printer for $7000?


Therefore, the LaserWriter product manager needed PageMaker as much as vice versa. Brainerd worked frantically behind the scenes with Adobe and Apple, dreaming up the brand-new buzzword desktop publishing. In a national tour reminiscent of Bill and Al’s campaign bus ride, the little company of 12 people trained dealers, educated the market, and gave interviews.


There are three incredible aspects of Aldus today: (1) desktop publishing is nearly a $3 billion market; (2) Brainerd still runs Aldus; and (3) they still haven’t tacked Pro onto PageMaker’s name.





Born: June 1987, by Casady & Greene, at $35.

Sold today by: Casady & Greene, as QuickDex II, at $49.95.

History: Apple programmer Bill Atkinson demonstrated a little program called QuickFile (a tiny 9K address-book program) to programmers Robin Casady and Michael Greene. On the spot, they decided to create a desk accessory version.


Key to longevity: Unlike other phonebook programs, QuickDex doesn’t have separate fields (blanks) for City, Street, Zip, and so on. Instead, you can type any info on each card, including your own notes (“met on plane; has terrible toupee” or whatever). Result: find a phone number in QuickDex—even with thousands of names typed in—instantaneously.


Still, QuickDex isn’t nearly as full-featured as the more recent programs like TouchBase or Now Contact. So how come everybody still uses it?


My theory: You can’t export freeform cards to a field-based program. Therefore, QuickDex will probably be with us forever simply because it’s too much trouble to switch.




Lotus Jazz

Born: August 1985, by Lotus, at $595.

Died: June 1988

History: OK. You’re Lotus. You come out with Lotus 1-2-3 — boffo smash hit. You follow up with Symphony — instant triumph. So now you try a product for the Mac — integrated word processor, spreadsheet, graphics, database, telecom, all crammed, impressively, into 512K of memory. You predict it’ll be running on half of all the Macs in America.


Key to its demise: You, too, can repeat the Jazz experience with these simple steps: (1) release the product a year late; (2) leave out the very features that made 1-2-3 a success (macros, power, and speed); (3) require exceptional Mac horsepower (512K and a second floppy disk drive); (4) make the memory situation so fragile that the word processor cops out after 17 pages and occasionally declines to carry out minor commands that require too much memory to execute — like Save and Quit; (5) copy-protect the program so that dealers (let alone software pirates, whose significance as the unofficial first vanguard of software reviewers shouldn’t be underestimated) can’t easily demonstrate the thing. And then advertise like crazy.




Cauzin Softstrips

Born: October 1985, by Cauzin, at $199.

Died: February 1987.

History: Softstrips were glorified bar codes that could be published in a magazine or photocopied. If you owned the Softstrip Reader, which looked something like a 16-inch-long fluorescent bulb in a hotdog bun, you could scan these printed strips into your Mac to get a file of information. And lo, the icon for the file you’d just scanned would appear on the desktop.


In its ads, Cauzin waxed rhapsodic. “All your favorite books and magazines” would publish strips. Tiny shareware programs appeared right in the ads. In one ad, Cauzin even pitched Softstrips as a way to transfer data between PCs and Macs.


Key to its demise: Well, there was the chicken-and-the-egg syndrome, of course; nobody would buy a reader until there were enough published strips, but nobody would publish strips until … you get the idea. Mainly, though, the Softstrips technology was slow and fussy. Each printed strip contained 3K of information, and took 2 1/2 minutes to scan.


Hey, but it could still work, right? Sure. Your Word 5.1 upgrade comes in the mail printed on ordinary letter-size paper ... 671 sheets of it. No problem. It’d only take 84 consecutive hours to scan.





Born: August 1989, by Spectrum Digital Systems, at $495.

Died: 1991, as Adobe TrueForm.

History: For a nation obsessed with filling out forms, TrueForm seemed to be a forerunner of things to come. It let you add on-screen blanks to the scanned image of a paper form. The result was you could bypass the painstaking task of re-creating a real-world form on the screen simply for the purpose of typing info into it. Adobe bought the program from Spectrum (nope, not John Sculley’s Spectrum) in 1989, revamped it, and entered the marketplace later that year.


Key to its demise: It wasn’t the software that failed, but the market. TrueForm and Claris’s SmartForm (also defunct) got good reviews, were well promoted, and worked well — for all 17 people in the forms-design industry. (“It turned out to be a smaller market than we expected,” murmured a Claris spokesperson.)




The Upshot

Of course, there are plenty of other cautionary tales for creating Mac products. You might learn from the examples of Microsoft Write or QuarkStyle (“Stripped-down versions of best-sellers don’t sell”); or of Wingz, Resolve, and Full Impact (“Nobody competes with Excel and comes out alive”); or Jasmine hard drives (“The customer is always right”).


The lessons for creating products that do last, on the other hand, seem to be (1) make it good, fast, small, cheap, and not too ambitious; (2) make it easy to get into and hard to get out of; and (3) whatever you do, don’t believe ’em when they tell you “it’ll never work.”


What’ll Mac products be like ten years from now? This much I know: Word will have still more icon bars, version 1.0 of anything will still be buggy, and we’ll still be dialing out of QuickDex.




Contributing editor David Pogue, author of Macs for Dummies (IDG Books Worldwide, 1993), was shipped in 1963. He's compatible with every Mac model and crashes only occasionally.