Time to touch up before millennium

During the next 18 months, as your IT departments focus their efforts on stabilising your networks for the millennium, software vendors have a rare opportunity to focus on fundamentals. I'm hopeful that those agonising limitations or bugs that drive us nuts might get some attention from developers in the days leading to the year 2000.

You may scoff at the notion of vendors paying attention to fixing current features rather than developing new ones, but I think your emphasis for the next two years on making sure things work will cause a slowdown in IT buying. And this slowdown will give the software developers a chance to live up to some of their promises.

I'm probably preaching to the converted, but often times vendors get too caught up in buzzword-oriented features and the basic functions of a product get overlooked, particularly in the race to get the next release to market. You can see a great example of this problem in messaging and collaboration products, such as Lotus's Domino, Novell's GroupWise and Microsoft's Exchange.

If you'll remember just two years ago, Netscape arrived on the messaging scene threatening to take away everyone's market share with the promise of open protocols. Though some would say Netscape bit off more than it could chew by taking on too many major competitors, in several cases it achieved something noteworthy.

The area in which Netscape succeeded was in focusing the competition squarely on its marketing message. Thus, Lotus, Novell and Microsoft responded with standards-based protocol support in their respective messaging products. Yet in the meantime, some fundamental features of these applications have been neglected.

That's why Lotus, Novell and Microsoft are just getting around to implementing basic features. For example, Lotus will clean up some of its calendaring and scheduling problems in the next release of Domino; these include the flaw that creates a separate document for each instance of a recurring appointment and results in a user's mail database growing in a painful and unnecessary fashion.

Novell is paying attention to similar functions, adding the capability for users to view their calendars with greater variation. In addition, Novell is adding into GroupWise the capability to index file attachments. These are features that should have appeared some time ago, given Novell's early lead in injecting both calendaring and scheduling and document-management capabilities into its messaging platform.

Meanwhile, Microsoft Exchange Server continues to lack the many basics of these other platforms, including the capability to index file attachments, or to sequentially route an e-mail form to an ordered list of users. Microsoft's recent Service Pack for Exchange 5.5 shows that the company is making headway in touching up some of Exchange's limitations.

Messaging is just one area in which vendors need to finish what they've started. Although developers are always striving to improve their products, these last couple of years in particular have produced a number of applications that work well on the whole but need a little more attention.

I like to refer to this period as the Era of Sloppiness. It's not the most graceful title, but it is reflective of the products we've seen. Product innovation has certainly been on the rise, but so has neglect in feature implementation.

I hope that these next two years will yield an era of constant improvement. Can you imagine, though, the day when we will have nothing to complain about? Alas, neither can I.

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