Pig in a poke

“Pig in a poke” is an expression dating back to the middle ages that is as applicable to today’s world as it was back then. It referred to various practices of substituting less-than-satisfactory products for what people thought they were buying. And when crass marketing enjoys a higher place in the priorities of any company than the quality of their products, that is precisely how their products should be described: “Pig in a poke.”

Paradox vs Access vs dBase

Back in the early nineties, I was a consultant for an insurance company that was owned by a much larger insurance company. This company needed a good database package to handle a large volume of data, but the owning company had a hard and fast rule that dBase would be the only database package. Not knowing that fact, I brought Paradox into my client’s offices, installed it on a PC and demonstrated the remarkable intuitive nature of Paradox, its ease of use, and other features and benefits. When my clients saw how easily it could handle their data and how versatile it was, they immediately opted to use Paradox.

A bit later, the head of their local data center revealed the company policy mandating dBase for such applications. I cautioned him that it was a bit foolish to put so many eggs in one basket and that dBase had so many inherent bugs and problems that it would not be surprising to see it disappear from the marketplace within a year. Six months later, while that fellow was attending a corporate conference in West Virginia, it was announced that Ashton-Tate, the owners of dBase were disappearing (they were acquired by Borland, the owners of Paradox. Weeks after returning to Pittsburgh, the data processing manager came to visit me in my office. He expressed both appreciation and admiration that I hadn’t descended on him to gloat about the accuracy of my prediction.

If Ashton-Tate had been as effective managing the technical nature of their product as they were at marketing it, the end result might have been totally different. But there is more to the story than Borland and Ashton-Tate. One of the accountants who worked for my client left to work at another company, and asked for my advice about an appropriate database package. Of course I recommended Paradox, but his new employers opted for Microsoft’s Access. Eventually, in 1999, I received a call from my former client seeking help with a serious problem: his new employer’s database simply would not open. When I investigated, I found that the size of their database file had exceeded what was then the maximum file size supported by Microsoft operating systems.

Pending a revision to the operating system to enable larger files to be handled, I recommended that they revert to a previous version of their database and move older data to a “historical” database to reduce the size of their current database. Eventually, Microsoft did improve the operating system, but the incident created a lot of additional work for the customer in the interim. I pointed out that the problem was not just the size of files that could be handled by the Microsoft OS, it was the propensity for Access to put all elements of a database into a single file (tables, forms, reports, indexes, etc.). If they had been using Paradox, they would never have experienced the problem because Paradox placed each type of element into a separate file.

Sprint vs WordPerfect

Around the same time, WordPerfect was rapidly gaining ground in the marketplace as the wordprocessing program of choice. But what I found occurring at my client’s sites was that far from providing the ease of use and flexibility one might wish from an application, WordPerfect required extensive training and experience to use and was riddled with bugs. In those days, I had chosen a product called Sprint (another Borland product), and I recommended it to many clients. Almost all of them initially objected, claiming “We know how to use WordPerfect.” (which wasn’t true, many of them couldn’t even find WordPerfect’s elusive menus). Today, WordPerfect is owned by Corel, and Corel has significantly cleaned up the product. In the interest of disclosure, I have been using Corel’s version of WordPerfect for years. It is far superior to the original product.

In those days, a friend of mine was working on her dissertation for a doctorate in anthropology. When she indicated to her faculty advisors that she wished to include tables of words in the language and vernaculars of the people she had studied, they tried to discourage her, telling her that it simply wasn’t possible to print such tables in a readable form. I bought a copy of the Sprint wordprocessor for her and helped her learn how to use it. Admittedly, it was a bit more complex than the standard word processors of the day, but it could do so much more, because it could be modified by a simple macro language to produce very impressive formatting, and it could also send its contents to a printer in the PostScript format, and the university had many PostScript printers available. Needless to say, her faculty advisors were astounded by the professional appearance of her finished dissertation.

So how did WordPerfect become such a marketing force in spite of its numerous flaws? WordPerfect Corporation, the originators of the product hired people all over the country to go into prospective customers’ offices and make all kinds of promises for training and support. If they had spent more money on product maintenance and development than they spent on sales, it might still have been as successful. But they didn’t do that and it took a company like Corel, with its meticulous attention to detail, to ultimately deliver on WordPerfect’s promises.

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2 Responses to Pig in a poke

  1. Quinn DuPont says:

    Dear Leo,

    I came across your comment on Morris’ “Did My Brother Invent E-Mail With Tom Van Vleck?” article. I’m a PhD student at the University of Toronto studying software history, would you care to chat some time about your experiences with early email systems? I can be reached at http://www.iqdupont.com/contact

  2. I really like studying blogs such as this the place it definitely helps
    make me contemplate the important information.

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