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Tomorrow's applications today.

The world of computer technology is moving so quickly that it is hard to keep up. Every so often, after reading hundreds of new product releases and dozens of strategic alliances, I find it helpful to stop for a compass check--to look at where we are and where we may be headed in key areas of technology.

While there is always some new twist on computerization, two trends that are currently having the greatest impact on automation strategies are the graphical user interface, or GUI (pronounced gooey), and networking.

New meaning for "user friendly"

Eventually, everyone who uses a computer will use a GUI; the question is not whether, but when. To understand what a GUI is, compare a Mac with its fancy graphics to an IBM PC running a "character-based" software program. You will see the difference immediately.

The Apple Macintosh was originally designed with a GUI. The big struggle in the IBM PC world today revolves around the best way to give IBM PCs the GUI features the Macs have. Windows is the most widely used program that achieves that goal.

For the purposes of this article, unless otherwise noted, GUI refers to Microsoft's Windows. We are focusing on the PC, rather than on the Mac or other hardware "platforms," because the majority of software programs for real estate management are character-based applications written for PCs that use DOS.

Programs of this type are commonly referred to as "DOS applications" to differentiate them from Windows applications. That would imply that Windows is an alternative to DOS. In fact, it is an additional layer of software that resides on top of DOS.

Differences between DOS and Windows

There are two fundamental differences between DOS applications and Windows applications. The first is the nature and quality of the graphic display, which is far superior in Windows.

In applications such as word processing and desktop publishing, where the appearance of a document can be as important as its contents, GUIs offer a decided advantage. Desktop publishers love Windows for its ability to show text in different typefaces and sizes, to edit graphical images, and to combine images with text.

The second difference has to do with how easy Windows is to learn and use. All things being equal, it would probably be easier for someone brand new to automation to learn a complex application in Windows than in DOS. It is helpful when learning a DOS application, if not essential, to be familiar with DOS. This requires that the user type arcane commands directly into the computer. Windows, on the other hand, allows the user to select from easy-to-grasp pictures, or icons, to direct the computer.

If Windows gets the edge for easy learning of the first application, it is the clear winner for learning all subsequent ones. Unlike DOS applications, in which commands and conventions vary from program to program, Windows applications benefit from a consistent "look and feel." Once you learn what a command means, it remains consistent throughout the available applications.

Alas, there is still no free lunch. Windows benefits come at a price. While 10-year-old computers can happily accommodate most DOS applications, including real estate management, Windows requires the latest 386 or 486 hardware, the faster the better. Two million bytes (two megabytes, or 2 MB) of main memory are recommended for Windows, while 640,000 bytes (640K) is sufficient for DOS. And because 40 megabytes of hard disk space would fill up much faster with Windows applications than with their DOS counterparts, hard disks with capacities of 120 MB or more are becoming the norm.

Does DOS have a future?

Even after comparing the benefits of Windows against the cost of an upgrade and taking into account falling hardware prices, we expect DOS to remain dominant for the next couple of years. It still has an enormous market share, despite Windows' inroads. With upgrades from Microsoft (the publisher of both DOS and Windows), DOS may linger even longer or evolve into a different product.

What comes after Windows?

Microsoft's Windows NT (New Technology) is a new operating system which is predicted to be ready as early as the end of 1992. The good news about Windows NT is that it promises to provide all of the networking, multi-tasking, and security features found in the Unix environment, while maintaining compatibility with Windows.

The significance of Windows NT is that it is expected to be made available for use with computers based on microprocessors other than the Intel 80386 (386) and 80486 (486). The effect will be to expand compatibility--the number of different kinds of computers able to run a given application program. It will also put additional downward pressure on hardware prices.

How property managers see Windows

Some property managers are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward Windows. "It's not clear at this point what we'd get |from Windows~ that we're not already getting from our property management software," said John T. Gray, CPM |R~, president of Summit Management Company of Charlotte, N.C.

"I'm not sure that we haven't reached a point of diminishing returns on technology," he continued. "Our old XT may be obsolete by today's standards, but it still does a great job at word processing."

As for Windows' potential as a platform for desktop publishing, Gray advises leaving newsletter design and production to professionals. Summit's IREM award-winning newsletter is produced by a vendor.

Taking a different view is Tom Mitchell, controller at Lincoln Property Company in Tampa. He recently began using Windows for word processing and spreadsheet analysis, but is most interested in its potential for unlimited data retrieval and report writing.

"We've increased our fee management business, and we find that almost every one of the owners and lenders we work with has its own idea about how data should be presented," he said. "Eventually I see Windows giving us push-button access to our data so that we can reformat it in whatever way each client wants to see it."

Another important benefit of Windows, according to Mitchell, is its ability to integrate multiple applications seamlessly so that users can easily move from one to another. "No software vendor is going to be able to provide everything that its customers will ever want, all in one package. Windows should make it easier for us to put together a complete system--one where there will be no possibility that a manager in the field can make a mistake."

Although it will be a major undertaking to train more than 300 on-site managers, the effort will be worthwhile, according to Mitchell. Lincoln has already upgraded most of its properties with PCs capable of running Windows.

According to Mark Hammond, assistant vice president of Winthrop Management in Boston, the only drawback to Windows is that smaller sites have to spend between $1,500 and $2,500 for the necessary PC hardware upgrades. Winthrop has no immediate plans for networking computers at its properties, but Hammond says that the firm eventually will add more computers at its larger sites and link them together for access to a common database. A ratio of between 400 and 600 units per PC is optimal, he suggests.

Local area networks

As the dominant vendor in PC networking, Novell is probably the safest choice for firms of all sizes that want to network. Novell's market share is expected to keep growing this year as it has for the past two years.

Novell Netware 286 is designed for networking 286 (PC/AT and compatible) computers, while Netware 386 is intended for 386- and 486-based PCs and PS/2s. The 386 version takes advantage of 386/486 architecture by supporting larger disk sizes and a larger number of simultaneous users. Novell capitalizes on those advantages by charging nearly twice as much per user for Netware 386 as for Netware 286.

According to Winthrop's MIS Manager Greg DeBor, the firm has had a local area network (LAN) in place at its Boston headquarters for the past 18 months. The network uses Novell NetWare software and IBM-oriented, token-ring LAN technology to serve approximately 120 users with word processing, spreadsheet analysis, and other applications. Winthrop also communicates with some of its regional offices over leased telephone lines and with other offices via modem.

Installing the network was difficult at the time, according to DeBor, but probably would be much easier now thanks to improved networking products and better cooperation among equipment vendors.

"Networking makes sense for any company where two or more people are doing the same kind of work on a computer and can benefit from being able to share data," says DeBor. "Even being able to share the same printer, rather than having to carry disks back and forth, has benefits."

Networking solved precisely that problem elsewhere in Boston at General Investment and Development Company. Data Processing Manager John Williams says the firm installed a Novell LAN at headquarters in December 1991. It currently serves 12 people in the firm's acquisitions department, who use it for spreadsheet analysis, word processing, database retrieval, and sharing two laser printers.

Williams says the network has been an overwhelming success. Prior to its installation, analysts in the acquisitions department either made changes on printouts of 20-page spreadsheets or carried diskettes up and down stairs from one computer to the next. It was not uncommon for versions of the same document to multiply, creating confusion. Now there can be only one version of each document, but it is available to everyone in the department who needs to review, revise, or print it.

The network installation created very few problems, according to Williams. He admits he expected more problems because of what he had read about the complexities of computer networking. MicroAge provided the networking hardware and software, and the cabling was done by the same firm that installed General Investment's telephone system. Williams directed the planning and installation and trained acquisitions staff members how to use the network.

Evans Withycombe, Inc., a large Phoenix-based apartment management firm, first installed a local area network at its corporate headquarters in 1986. Since then the network has been upgraded twice, most recently in April 1992. It now has a file server with a one-gigabyte (billion-byte) storage capacity, large enough to serve a total of 40 users, 30 of whom are on the network constantly.

According to Mark Olson, vice president of finance and administration, the network is used by almost every headquarters department. Software applications include spreadsheet analysis, database retrieval, word processing, and specialized use. Users on the network also have access to either of two laser printers or four dot matrix printers.

The first network had an 80 MB storage capacity, which Evans Withycombe thought would be sufficient indefinitely; it lasted only two years before being upgraded. The new employees required more sophisticated tools, and the network was the most efficient way to provide them. Today, according to Olson, it would be difficult for Evans Withycombe to operate without it.

The firm has a multi-user accounting system at headquarters and also has installed PCs at most of its properties. There is currently no direct link between the PCs and either the accounting system or the local area network, nor are the two headquarters systems connected.

Summary

For the immediate future, Windows seems to be the operating system of choice. Virtually every viable software developer is working on a Windows program right now, and many PC clone makers are bundling Windows with each shipment.

The benefits of networking, on the other hand, are much more immediate, and easier to obtain than many might think. Novell's Netware appears to be the obvious standard, with the 386 version the safer bet despite its higher price.

Dawn Britt is head of the real estate management business unit of Prentice Hall Professional Software in Atlanta. Under her leadership, the firm has grown to become a dominant supplier of computer systems to the property management industry.

Prentice Hall Professional Software is a leading supplier of software for multifamily residential property management, with systems installed at 3,000 sites nationwide. The company is a member of the Software and Information Services Division of Simon & Schuster's Business and Professional Group.
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Title Annotation:Computers; Microsoft Windows and Novell Netware computer network
Author:Britt, Dawn
Publication:Journal of Property Management
Article Type:Product/Service Evaluation
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Words:2029
Previous Article:What public managers could learn from the private sector.
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