Tic or treat

It was perhaps Desmond Morris’s popular anthropology that introduced many of us to the idea of reading non-verbal communication, or ‘body language’, although Albert Mehrabian had earlier estimated that the bulk of face-to-face communication is non-verbal.

So too with corporate communication: ‘buy one, get one free’ (the infamous BOGOF) indicates a special bulk purchase, whilst ‘buy one, get two [or more] free’ (BOGTF) reveals a purchasing cock-up.

The software industry also has its body language, and one day I might find space to spell out its more popular phrases, often involving digits such as version numbers and prices.

We all know that version 1.0 means a customer-funded public beta-test, and that any paid-for minor upgrade such as 5.0 to 5.5 indicats the need to improve revenue before the next major update, but engineering progress has been too inadequate to merit a full increment in version number.

As happens in matters of communication, Apple’s software body language resembles that of someone suffering from Gilles de la Tourette’s syndrome, consisting of a series of unco-ordinated tics.

Having spun Claris out to develop and sell some hugely popular and delightful applications, it progressively amputated them all, even the factotum ClarisWorks, leaving just FileMaker Pro, which became the company. Apple, not Claris/FileMaker, then developed or acquired a whole new range of standalone products that became bundled into iLife, iWork, and its Pro suite.

Although the ‘productivity’ applications in iWork have since flourished, and now give industry standards such as Microsoft Office a run for its money, they still look like precocious children rather than a fully-integrated family.

With successive enhancements to its Mail application, Apple could readily pitch that against Outlook (score 1-nil to Apple), Pages against Word (2-1), Numbers against Excel (3-2), Keynote against PowerPoint (4-2), but then FileMaker Pro against Access?

This all comes unstuck once you look at integration, and FileMaker Pro. In case you are unfamiliar with Apple’s devolved database, it is in many ways more than a match for Microsoft’s Access: capability, professionalism and polish are not the issues. It is once again the complete failure to integrate this precocious kid.

One of my favourite features in Numbers is its ability to place images into spreadsheet cells.

This is the sort of thing that I used to value in Adobe’s quietly strangled FrameMaker publishing platform – the powerhouse for technical documentation that they acquired in 1995, enhanced with full support for SGML, then XML, but woefully never ported to Mac OS X. I have used FrameMaker to embed sample charts in tables of scientific results, and Numbers to construct reference tables for artist’s paint products containing scanned colour swatches (which you can download here in PDF).

Numbers’ tables can of course be embedded in Pages documents and Keynote presentations, but just try to import them into a FileMaker Pro database.

Importing Microsoft Excel spreadsheets is surprisingly easy and effective, so the preferred way to move my paint spreadsheets is to save them in Excel format, discarding all that makes them worthwhile, in particular my precious paint swatches. But one of FileMaker’s strengths is the ease with which its databases contain images, documents, movies, and unconventional field types – so long as you haven’t been keeping them in Numbers.

With a bit of co-ordination, effort, and attention to detail, Apple could have a software portfolio far broader than in the heyday of Claris, although I still miss HyperCard, MacDraw and Claris CAD. But for the moment, the body language just isn’t right.

Updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 27 issue 13, 2011. This lack of co-ordination persists, and FileMaker Pro still cannot import Numbers spreadsheets direct.