Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    Handy presentation graphics software gives you just what you need, and nothing more

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1996 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #329  February 13, 1996 High Tech Office  column

    My kids and I recently went to the movies, and as is now customary, we got to sit through several commercials before the film. One was a public-service announcement that told the story of an engineer at Waterloo University who drew on his Mennonite farming background to design a water pump that can be used by foreign-aid workers to bring water to African villages that lack electricity. Appropriate technology: just enough to do the job, simply and elegantly.

    I'm always appreciative when I find software that seems to fit that criterion. It doesn't happen all that often. Most of the time, it seems that we get bigger and bigger programs with more and more features. Even as user interfaces become better-designed and easier to learn, the increased number of things going on conspires to keep the user just as confused as before. And these added features require more hard-drive space, more RAM, and a faster processor--a hardware upgrade just to run at the same speed. As the Red Queen told Alice: "You have to run as fast as you can just to stay in the same spot."

    But every once in a while, some piece of software gets my attention by doing less, but doing it well. One such example is ASAP, a presentation graphics package from Software Publishing Corporation (SPC).

    SPC had a problem: its flagship presentation program, Harvard Graphics, had pretty much defined the genre back in the '80s, but it was a DOS program, and, like Lotus and WordPerfect, SPC missed the big shift to the Windows environment in the early '90s. Eventually, it did come out with a Windows version, and it was pretty good, but by then it was too late--most business users were now buying their software as part of a suite of applications. And they were primarily buying the suite for the word processor and getting a presentation graphics program thrown in.

    Even if Harvard Graphics was better than Microsoft PowerPoint or Lotus Freelance, users who got their presentation program free as part of a suite usually saw little need to look elsewhere. The market for big, stand-alone presentation graphics had pretty much evaporated.

    Software Publishing took a look at the market, however, and thought it saw an opportunity. While some users are able to take the time to master the big programs and, in some cases, have lots of time to fine-tune special effects to produce a presentation, lots of other users find themselves needing to throw together their speech, slides, and notes at the last minute--say, on the plane on the way to the meeting. (I know you've never been in that situation.)

    Starting with the way people work in the real world, SPC designed ASAP as a program finely tuned to those needs. It's small, shipping on a mere two disks, takes up 3.5 megs of drive space, and requires just one meg of RAM over Windows' base needs. So it can run on your average four-meg notebook--even a 386.

    And it's quick to learn and easy to use. If you have an outline in your word processor, you can just import it, choose a pre-made colour scheme and slide style, and you've got your presentation. Maybe spend a few minutes fussing, and your slide show can be ready for your audience in 15 minutes or less.

    Of course, there's a trade-off: no fancy fades and dissolves, no multimedia hooks, no library of ready-made clip-art (although you can use the clip-art from most other programs). Still, the result is certainly more than presentable for most situations.

    Software Publishing is even extending ASAP with add-ons to allow you to show your presentations as part of an Internet Web page. All in all, a great little program--just the thing for many users, even if they already have a big-time, full-featured presentation package as part of a suite of applications.

    I just have one grumble: at a price point of, say, US$49 or CDN$69, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it. Instead, SPC is pricing it at US$99, which means you'll have to pay about CDN$149. That's more than you'll pay for a full-featured word processor or spreadsheet these days, and enough that it may cause many potential customers to hesitate.

    Still, you can buy an expensive tool kit filled with gadgets you may never need. But if you need to bang in a nail, all you need is a hammer, and SPC has done a good job of producing the tool to fit the need.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan