OR/MS Today - June 2006



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Requiem for Beloved Software

By Adedeji B. Badiru


In order to understand the future, one has to appreciate the present as a function of the past. The defunct Lotus Manuscript Word Processor (circa 1986) fits the bill as a tool on which present word processing functions were built. This article is about a software echo from the past. Lotus Manuscript was a desktop computer tool way ahead of its time. It was the first desktop-based word processor that catered to the needs of technical documents. In an age when MS Word and Word Perfect were mere document-creating tools, Lotus Manuscript went beyond simplicity. It offered excellent technical word processing capability never before seen at the desktop computer level. The software was so far advanced ahead of its peers that it failed miserably in the market. Its demise after Version 2.0 in 1987 probably fueled the need for its competitors (Word and WordPerfect) to scramble to incorporate technical word processing capabilities.

Lotus Manuscript software was introduced as a tool for the engineering, technical and scientific community. This writer was one of the first O.R. researchers and teachers to jump on the Manuscript bandwagon (and has refused to completely disembark). At a time when MS Word and Word Perfect were still devoid of equation editing capabilities, several O.R. technical manuscripts were actually developed with Lotus Manuscript on the desktop computer. Manuscript's ability to build intricate, technical equations appealed a great deal to many in the O.R. community at that time.

Some of the technically oriented functions offered by Manuscript in 1987 included Screen Capture, Keyboard Stroke Capture, Versatile Common-Language Thesaurus and Embedded Graphics. Most word-processing users of that era did not need those types of capabilities. So, the software mostly languished on the shelves of software stores. The software, however, found ready users among technical professionals — engineers, scientists and researchers. For the few years that it lasted, Manuscript was the word processor of choice for university professors in engineering and science. The technical orientation of the software made it complicated to learn and use. Even trainers cursed the software as they struggled to learn it well enough to teach it to others.

Historical Importance


Why is it important to write about this obsolete software at this time? Well, the case of Manuscript has important lessons for those engaged in product development. Just ask this "old prof." You don't want your product to stray too far ahead of its generation. One generation ahead (OGA) is sufficient. To move too far beyond that may spell irrecoverable doom for the product. We go to museums to marvel at old products of ages ago. So, it makes sense to understand the software products that paved the way for the present generation. Just as a typewriter still has some utility in some old reporter's office (is Andy Rooney listening?), so does Manuscript still have utility in some old professor's office. Yes, indeed! Thanks to the generosity and accommodating nature of Microsoft Windows, some DOS-based software packages can still run on modern desktop computers.

Most word processing programs are introduced in functional increments due to hurried development efforts or market pressures. Consequently, we often see quick successions of Versions, 1.0, 1.01, 1.2, . . ., etc. By contrast, Lotus Manuscript was developed as a well-thought-out product in giant steps. Version 1.0 possessed functionality beyond what most users of the era would ever need. Proficient users of Manuscript at that time were generally satisfied with the completeness of the software. Some minor deficiencies that were identified could usually be circumvented by cleverly utilizing the available functions.

When Lotus Development Corporation came out with Version 2.0 of Manuscript in 1987, it was not because of the need to fix minor bugs, but rather because of the commitment and desire to incorporate additional giant steps in the software. The relatively few bugs in Version 1.0 make it possible for Lotus to skip the intermediate "bug-fixing" versions that are common in many software packages. This is a good lesson for the present generation of software developers. Unfortunately, market pressures and demands often dictate that a product be rushed to the market before it is really ready for marketing.

Just as historians love to dwell on the past, this writer may be the only person on the planet who still calls upon Manuscript occasionally to get some unique and obscure functionality. Rather than readers jeering at this fact, they should applaud him for preserving history. After all, Lotus Manuscript is an ancestral software from ancient times. It will be interesting to see if there are still other lingering users of Manuscript in some nooks and corners of our world. Otherwise, this writer will claim the uncontested world title of being the "Last Manuscript Loyalist."

For mathematical, scientific or engineering documents, few low-cost desktop-based word processors of the mid-1980s could rival Lotus Manuscript. For a non-technical user, the awesome power of Manuscript 2.0 was very intimidating. This might have been a major reason for the market failure of the software. The early success of Microsoft Word was because it wooed the more numerous general users. Once the market share was secured, more functionality and versatility were incorporated into the product. Product development professionals should take note of this incremental strategy. The historical lesson is a good guide for developing software faster, better, more efficiently and more relevant to the current market. Adieu!



Adedeji B. Badiru is a professor and department head in the Department of Industrial & Information Engineering at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

References


  1. Badiru, Adedeji B. and Iswat Badiru, 1988, "A Complete Guide to Lotus Manuscript 2.0," Kern International Publications, Inc., Rockland, Mass.
  2. Badiru, Adedeji B. and Iswat Badiru, 1989, "Technical and Scientific Word Processing with Lotus Manuscript 2.0," Kern International, Inc., Rockland, Mass.





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