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The Search for the 21st Century Killer Applications

You just know that, in the 1980s, several Mac applications set the standard for the industry for decades to come. How soon we forget that Adobe PageMaker made it possible to do typography and layout on a personal computer — your Mac of course. Combine that with Apple’s LaserWriter and Adobe’s PostScript, and you were able to output essentially what you saw on your monitor.

Between my two radio careers (broadcast and online), I worked in traditional typesetting, and these developments basically put most of the companies I worked for out of work — if they failed to adapt of course. And I imagine a lot fewer layout tables and hot wax machines were sold as well.

Certainly musicians found ways to use a relatively low-cost personal computer to perform the same chores that would formerly require expensive studios to accomplish, and photo retouchers no longer had to take tiny brushes and remove blemishes and red eyes from photo negatives as Adobe Photoshop brought those tasks to the digital realm as well.

Today, some of the names of the programs, other than Photoshop of course, have changed, and they can do more things in a speedier fashion on the supercomputer you have on your desktop or on your lap. But as I perform my daily chores here, I wonder how much has really changed. Sure, my workflow is more attuned to audio editing and blogging than writing books and magazine articles, but the way I approach these tasks is remarkably similar.

Web browsing? The standard was set in the 1980s. It’s faster, the sites are much prettier, but you still have back and forwards buttons, along with the ever-present refresh feature and some way to empty the cache when sites crash your browser.

Email is another type of application that doesn’t seem to have changed all that much from the basic spreadsheet look that divides messages into columns allowing you to sort the contents in simple ways, such as by name, when it was received and so forth and so on.

Sure, there are more ways to organize your messages, and surely Apple’s Smart Folders is a neat trick, but you still have to perform a fair amount of manual labor, such as initiating the proper search routine to get the folder you want to perform precisely the functions you require.

This isn’t to say developers aren’t searching for better ways to help you get your work done Take email, since it is probably the single most important application used by the largest number of people on a personal computer, or a smartphone. Just recently the Outspring, the descendant of the company who brought you QuickMail a long time ago, announced Outspring Mail, which may be the first iteration of an application that revolutionizes the way you access and organize your messages.

The promotional literature, for example, states that: “Outspring Mail ushers in an entirely new category of software to the Macintosh: adaptive intelligent software. By using advanced database analysis and Bayesian logic, the program is able to ascertain patterns in the way you reply to and file your mail and make suggestions to assist you with your communications.”

Now I should tell you that Outspring Mail, typical of a version one release, has some performance issues and feature shortcomings. It’s not quite a fully-realized product yet, but it appears to have huge potential, should these capabilities mature as promised.

What is most intriguing here is the fact that, at long last, a software company has made some effort to rethink the traditional email metaphor and attempt to observe your work pattern in order to handle your messages in a way that anticipates your needs.

Certainly this is one of the things that is lacking in the way Mac and Windows applications are developed now. As computers have become more and more powerful, applications have simply become larger, with more and more often useless features to compensate. Software bloat is everywhere, and when it takes 20 seconds to launch a simple word processing application on the speediest Mac on the planet, you just know that something has to give.

Now is this something that Apple ought to be doing? Well, in part, because it has a healthy selection of applications, and indeed it may have to build tools into the operating system to allow those features to exist.

Today? Well, with over 300 new features in Leopard, take a look at Mac System 1.0 back in 1984, and see how much, aside from the surface glitz, has really changed. You still interact with a Mac with mouse and keyboard. Even the revolutionary iPhone simply puts these functions onto a touch screen, but the basic functionality is little changed.

It may well be that there are, even now, small startup companies that are preparing to take the personal computing environment into the 21st century at long last. Maybe there are teams at Apple that are even now exploring some incredibly original capabilities that can be grafted into Leopard’s successor.

It couldn’t come soon enough.