by Rob Reilly Ed.D.
New Versions of Software Can Be Overkill
I first started using Microsoft's Word in 1993 when it was version 4.1. Word 4.1 ran on a very low-end PC. I'm not sure but I think it ran on an IBM 286 (a.k.a., an IBM AT). It had quite a few state-of-the-art features (e.g., a spell check mechanism, cut and paste, word wrapping, footnotes/endnotes). I have 'grown up' with the various versions of Microsoft Word; and now we are at version 8 or 9 (I know it has now become versioned by its year of introduction; we have seen Word 97, which was followed by Word 2000. But if we were counting the current iteration would be version 8 or 9). And let me say that the current version of Word is loaded with bells and whistles, it's terrific--it does artwork, it has a thesaurus, a grammar checker, and it does hundreds upon hundreds of neat things.
It was certainly a benefit for me that I started to use Word way-back-when. If I had to start to use it 'cold' from today on, the 400+ page user manual and hundreds of on-screen icons might overwhelm me. Hmmm…maybe I'd be really overwhelmed trying to learn just how to do the basics of this powerful word processor. Yeah, the more I think about it…I would be really lost if I had to learn to use Word from scratch! I was lucky; I learned the software package in stages.
You know I'm not sure that the new features on Word 2000 are all that necessary, but I must confess that I have not tried 50% of them. For that matter I have not yet explored many of the new features that were introduced in the Word 97 version. All things considered, I like using Word 2000 and it's a great asset for me.
Version 4.1 is out-dated now. Even when it was released, it did not have the features that were needed to do a high-quality job of word processing, but it did serve to move the frontier back and it was far better than using a typewriter. I am sure that the software engineers wanted to put more features in version 4.1; I'm also sure that if version 4.1 had all the features that the software engineers wanted to put into it, the 286 vintage PCs could not handle a program of that size. So the software engineers just needed to wait for more powerful computers to be built. They had to wait about 4 years for the 486 and Pentium computers--then Word 6.0 came out and it had all the basic word processing tools. But once all the needed features were included in the software it seems to me that the software engineers were faced with a software package that was, for the most part, a finished piece of work. It seems to me that the software engineers were then faced with the problem of creating an upgrade (the next version) but they lack features to incorporate into it that would make it a better product! But it also seems to me that there are not too many other features that can be incorporated into Word to make it better!!
The point is that there comes a time when a software product (to borrow a US Army slogan) 'is all that it can be.' There comes a time when adding more features to a software package is not productive, when adding more features to a software package is counter productive.
So, I think that we could survive nicely with Word 97; I think Word 2000 has lots of features that won't ever be used.
That brings me to Kid Pix. Don't get me wrong, I love Kid Pix. It's a terrific graphics program. It's great for the lower grades because it does so many things, and, it has graphical icons, which means the child does not need to be able to read in order to use the program.
A few weeks ago I decided to get the latest version of Kid Pix--Kid Pix Deluxe. The price was right--I found several places online where it's sells for $15.95--and one place even had a manual, but that cost $20. (Note: I bought the version with the manual and it was worth the price.)
The manual had some neat tips and lesson plan in it. Then I installed the new version of Kid Pix onto one computer--I wanted to see what it was like.
It installed without a problem. I ran it and started to play with it. Well, let me tell you that I did not like it as much as I like the older version. The new version is 95% the same as the version just before it, but it has bigger and glitzier icons, which means less screen area to draw on than the earlier version. The new version has a few more features but I'm not sure if I'd ever use any of them; I'm not sure if the children would use the new stuff either! I can do without the larger icons--they just get in the way! Again this seems to be a case of releasing a new version that contains no substance/content--it's just has glitz.
And then there's the Incredible Machine. I love the Incredible Machine (it's a Rube Goldberg contraption puzzle). There's a new version out, and I bought it. The newest version is glitzy--really glitzy--I mean annoyingly glitzy! In the new version the icons are big, on-screen help/hints are more distracting than they are helpful. The older version was the best--it got the job done; the icons did not consume the screen, it was not distractingly glitzy AND it was (is) fun to use!
There IS a 'message' in all this for me that I'd like to pass along to you. I don't buy the latest version of any software package. I make a special effort to see what version gets-the-job-done and I buy that one. I make a special effort to identify the version that seems to have changes just designed to be glitzy and I don't buy that one.
Some Helpful Hints
- If you want to know about a new version of a piece of software, go to: http://teachers.net/mentors/software. Then post a message asking for comments about the software you are interested in.
- Look for bargains. Don't just buy the latest version of a software package. Don't buy the latest version of encyclopedias; buy a version that is a few years out-of-date. The older version of the software will have almost everything the newer version has on it; plus the older version is much much cheaper. To find such bargains search the Web, but also take a look in Computer Shopper magazine.
- Even if the current version is a good piece of software, and even if you like it, hunt around the previous version of the software may be just as good and it may be a good deal cheaper.
- Always realize what the goal of the software is and evaluate it on that. Don't be distracted by glitz. The best touch typing software program I have seen is the old version of Type to Learn; it's boring to use, but it teaches touch typing and the finger positions and it makes you practice the skills--there are some reward games, but they support the touch typing activity. The newer software is too glitzy, and when I look at such software the game/reward aspect of it seems to be the attraction rather than the part that actually teaches you to touch type--the screen presentation distracts you away from the touch typing activity.
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