3.3: Application Software
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The second major category of software is application software. Application software is, essentially, software that allows the user to accomplish some goal or purpose. For example, if you have to write a paper, you might use the application-software program Microsoft Word. If you want to listen to music, you might use iTunes. To surf the web, you might use Internet Explorer or Firefox. Even a computer game could be considered application software.
The “Killer” App
When a new type of digital device is invented, there are generally a small group of technology enthusiasts who will purchase it just for the joy of figuring out how it works. However, for most of us, until a device can actually do something useful we are not going to spend our hard-earned money on it. A “killer” application is one that becomes so essential that large numbers of people will buy a device just to run that application. For the personal computer, the killer application was the spreadsheet. In 1979, VisiCalc, the first personal-computer spreadsheet package, was introduced. It was an immediate hit and drove sales of the Apple II. It also solidified the value of the personal computer beyond the relatively small circle of technology geeks. When the IBM PC was released, another spreadsheet program, Lotus 1-2-3, was the killer app for business users.
Along with the spreadsheet, several other software applications have become standard tools for the workplace. These applications, called productivity software, allow office employees to complete their daily work. Many times, these applications come packaged together, such as in Microsoft’s Office suite. Here is a list of these applications and their basic functions:
- Word processing: This class of software provides for the creation of written documents. Functions include the ability to type and edit text, format fonts and paragraphs, and add, move, and delete text throughout the document. Most modern word-processing programs also have the ability to add tables, images, and various layout and formatting features to the document. Word processors save their documents as electronic files in a variety of formats. By far, the most popular word-processing package is Microsoft Word, which saves its files in the DOCX format. This format can be read/written by many other word-processor packages.
- Spreadsheet: This class of software provides a way to do numeric calculations and analysis. The working area is divided into rows and columns, where users can enter numbers, text, or formulas. It is the formulas that make a spreadsheet powerful, allowing the user to develop complex calculations that can change based on the numbers entered. Most spreadsheets also include the ability to create charts based on the data entered. The most popular spreadsheet package is Microsoft Excel, which saves its files in the XLSX format. Just as with word processors, many other spreadsheet packages can read and write to this file format.
- Presentation: This class of software provides for the creation of slideshow presentations. Harkening back to the days of overhead projectors and transparencies, presentation software allows its users to create a set of slides that can be printed or projected on a screen. Users can add text, images, and other media elements to the slides. Microsoft’s PowerPoint is the most popular software right now, saving its files in PPTX format.
- Some office suites include other types of software. For example, Microsoft Office includes Outlook, its e-mail package, and OneNote, an information-gathering collaboration tool. The professional version of Office also includes Microsoft Access, a database package. (Databases are covered more in chapter 4.)
Utility Software and Programming Software
Two subcategories of application software worth mentioning are utility software and programming software. Utility software includes software that allows you to fix or modify your computer in some way. Examples include antivirus software and disk defragmentation software. These types of software packages were invented to fill shortcomings in operating systems. Many times, a subsequent release of an operating system will include these utility functions as part of the operating system itself.
Programming software is software whose purpose is to make more software. Most of these programs provide programmers with an environment in which they can write the code, test it, and convert it into the format that can then be run on a computer.
Sidebar: “PowerPointed” to Death
As presentation software, specifically Microsoft PowerPoint, has gained acceptance as the primary method to formally present information in a business setting, the art of giving an engaging presentation is becoming rare. Many presenters now just read the bullet points in the presentation and immediately bore those in attendance, who can already read it for themselves.
Sidebar: I Own This Software, Right? Well . . .
When you purchase software and install it on your computer, are you the owner of that software? Technically, you are not! When you install software, you are actually just being given a license to use it. When you first install a software package, you are asked to agree to the terms of service or the license agreement. In that agreement, you will find that your rights to use the software are limited. For example, in the terms of the Microsoft Office Excel 2010 software license, you will find the following statement: “This software is licensed, not sold. This agreement only gives you some rights to use the features included in the software edition you licensed.”
For the most part, these restrictions are what you would expect: you cannot make illegal copies of the software and you may not use it to do anything illegal. However, there are other, more unexpected terms in these software agreements. For example, many software agreements ask you to agree to a limit on liability. Again, from Microsoft: “Limitation on and exclusion of damages. You can recover from Microsoft and its suppliers only direct damages up to the amount you paid for the software. You cannot recover any other damages, including consequential, lost profits, special, indirect or incidental damages.” What this means is that if a problem with the software causes harm to your business, you cannot hold Microsoft or the supplier responsible for damages.
Applications for the Enterprise
As the personal computer proliferated inside organizations, control over the information generated by the organization began splintering. Say the customer service department creates a customer database to keep track of calls and problem reports, and the sales department also creates a database to keep track of customer information. Which one should be used as the master list of customers? As another example, someone in sales might create a spreadsheet to calculate sales revenue, while someone in finance creates a different one that meets the needs of their department. However, it is likely that the two spreadsheets will come up with different totals for revenue. Which one is correct? And who is managing all of this information?
Enterprise Resource Planning
In the 1990s, the need to bring the organization’s information back under centralized control became more apparent. The enterprise resource planning (ERP) system (sometimes just called enterprise software) was developed to bring together an entire organization in one software application. Simply put, an ERP system is a software application utilizing a central database that is implemented throughout the entire organization. Let’s take a closer look at this definition:
- “A software application”: An ERP is a software application that is used by many of an organization’s employees.
- “utilizing a central database”: All users of the ERP edit and save their information from the data source. What this means practically is that there is only one customer database, there is only one calculation for revenue, etc.
- “that is implemented throughout the entire organization”: ERP systems include functionality that covers all of the essential components of a business. Further, an organization can purchase modules for its ERP system that match specific needs, such as manufacturing or planning.
ERP systems were originally marketed to large corporations. However, as more and more large companies began installing them, ERP vendors began targeting mid-sized and even smaller businesses. Some of the more well-known ERP systems include those from SAP, Oracle, and Microsoft.
Sidebar: Y2K and ERP
The initial wave of software-application development began in the 1960s, when applications were developed for mainframe computers. In those days, computing was expensive, so applications were designed to take as little space as possible. One shortcut that many programmers took was in the storage of dates, specifically the year. Instead of allocating four digits to hold the year, many programs allocated two digits, making the assumption that the first two digits were “19″. For example, to calculate how old someone was, the application would take the last two digits of the current year (for 1995, for example, that would be “95″) and then subtract the two digits stored for the birthday year (“65″ for 1965). 95 minus 65 gives an age of 30, which is correct.
However, as the year 2000 approached, many of these “legacy” applications were still being used, and businesses were very concerned that any software applications they were using that needed to calculate dates would fail. To update our age-calculation example, the application would take the last two digits of the current year (for 2012, that would be “12″) and then subtract the two digits stored for the birthday year (“65″ for 1965). 12 minus 65 gives an age of -53, which would cause an error. In order to solve this problem, applications would have to be updated to use four digits for years instead of two. Solving this would be a massive undertaking, as every line of code and every database would have to be examined.
This is where companies gained additional incentive to implement an ERP system. For many organizations that were considering upgrading to ERP systems in the late 1990s, this problem, known as Y2K (year 2000), gave them the extra push they needed to get their ERP installed before the year 2000. ERP vendors guaranteed that their systems had been designed to be Y2K compliant – which simply meant that they stored dates using four digits instead of two. This led to a massive increase in ERP installations in the years leading up to 2000, making the ERP a standard software application for businesses.
Customer Relationship Management
A customer relationship management (CRM) system is a software application designed to manage an organization’s customers. In today’s environment, it is important to develop relationships with your customers, and the use of a well-designed CRM can allow a business to personalize its relationship with each of its customers. Some ERP software systems include CRM modules. An example of a well-known CRM package is Salesforce.
Supply Chain Management
Many organizations must deal with the complex task of managing their supply chains. At its simplest, a supply chain is the linkage between an organization’s suppliers, its manufacturing facilities, and the distributors of its products. Each link in the chain has a multiplying effect on the complexity of the process: if there are two suppliers, one manufacturing facility, and two distributors, for example, then there are 2 x 1 x 2 = 4 links to handle. However, if you add two more suppliers, another manufacturing facility, and two more distributors, then you have 4 x 2 x 4 = 32 links to manage.
A supply chain management (SCM) system manages the interconnection between these links, as well as the inventory of the products in their various stages of development. A full definition of a supply chain management system is provided by the Association for Operations Management: “The design, planning, execution, control, and monitoring of supply chain activities with the objective of creating net value, building a competitive infrastructure, leveraging worldwide logistics, synchronizing supply with demand, and measuring performance globally.” Most ERP systems include a supply chain management module.