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Go on - give yourself an IT treat for 1996

Tim Macer picks the techno-winners that could give any researcher a Happy New Year, January 1996

As a New Year's indulgence I thought I would engage in a bit of punditry, and point out some of the 'must have' IT solutions for 1996.

Voice Type

It is not often I find a software product which will be of appeal to the vast ranks of "Quallies". IBM's new Voice Type is one such product that could take the misery out of writing the qualitative researcher's stock-in-trade: the report. Using a headset like those often worn by telephonists, you dictate slowly and steadily and the computer changes your speech into text. Andrew Pellant of Allvoice Computing, who are IBM's appointed resellers for the product explained to me "the system relies on what are called discrete utterances which means each word is separated by a slight pause from the next. You soon become proficient, and can achieve 90 words per minute." As you might expect, the software includes lots of neat tricks, such as the ability to edit what you have dictated or build up a library of commands. For instance, Andrew had the word "oops" programmed to go back and delete the previous word. They have an impressive list of clients, from Whitehall departments through to lawyers and surveyors. If you find yourself cursing the keyboard or put off using a computer, this could be just the product you need.

Windows 95

After the hype from Microsoft last August, the computer press seem to have been in reaction ever since against what I believe to be a step in the right direction. Microsoft Windows had always been something of a compromise. It never came close to the sheer simplicity and sophistication offered by Apple Macintosh. The benefit in using Windows was entirely due to the range of software packages written to operate within it. These packages frequently overcame its deficiencies through their own ingenuity.

In case you are one of the many people who I have spoken to who thinks that there is no real benefit in switching to Windows 95, then allow me put the other point of view. I have been working with it for over a year now, starting with an early Beta release. I have found it a joy to use. As a Macintosh as well as a Windows user, I was perhaps better placed than many to make the transition because, yes, it is very Mac-like. However, it is not a slavish copy of the Macintosh. It works in a different way, and many of the features Microsoft have added are not found on the Mac.

If I were to pick out three things with which to commend it to an ordinary user, I would choose these. First, the new interface overcomes the tedious artificial split between software in the "program manager" and files in the "file manager". Windows 95 brings these together in a very sensible and obvious way. Many of the people I've taught to use it now organise their files much better, are more aware of what's using up the disk space are capable of doing something about it. Copying files to a floppy or making a backup is a treat. (When was the last time you did a backup of your hard disk, I wonder?)

Secondly, "shortcuts" allow you to define quick ways to get to all the items you use all the time. Though not an original idea, Microsoft's implementation of them is very clever. Used imaginatively they will save time and effort.

Finally, the whole way you set up printers, networks etc. - things that could cause despair in the past - at last work in a orderly and sensible way. For the large-scale user, this ends a major headache. But for the smaller-scale user, Windows 95 makes even more sense. Install Windows 95, and you'll soon forget it's there, although you will be using it every day. Surely that is the best recommendation for an operating system.

E-mail

We are saturated with news about the Internet's World Wide Web. But in terms of sheer commercial usefulness, the spotlight has been pointing in the wrong place. E-mail and its ability to transmit any document from your desk to anyone else's office is something which many big organizations now take for granted. But there are those for whom the only way of doing this is still the fax machine: a primitive tool in comparison. Lengthy reports containing graphics, colour, even sound, can be sent in seconds or minutes, with 100% reliability. The same is true for research data or tables. One research firm I know which specialises in overseas research took out a CompuServe subscription last year (at about £6.50 per month). They can send e-mail messages to anyone with an Internet mail address. They are now saving hundreds of pounds in motorbike courier charges to and from their translation bureau by exchanging the text through e-mail. The same is true for anything you might at present be tempted to send on a diskette by post or bike. But why stop there? It costs the same to send an e-mail to Stockwell as it does to Stockholm. E-mail is so inexpensive that you are bound to recoup your costs in very little time.

Scanning

It was a year ago I raised the topic of scanning software. I now learn that Formic is about to bring out a new version. This has a revamped questionnaire design module which seems to address the criticisms I raised in my previous article. Keith Negal, Director at Formic tells me that while their product has been seized upon by the cash starved public health sector for Patient's Charter monitoring, MR outfits are still slow on the uptake. Pulse Train Technology must share his belief that there is a market within MR for scanning software, as they have now adapted their Bellview system to support scanning. The new product is called, not surprisingly, Bellview Scan.

It is hard to understand the reluctance of the MR industry in adopting scanning software to replace data entry. Each of the three software products (the third being Readsoft's "DOCUMENT") is of high quality and well suited to its task. One of Formic's health sector clients has just concluded, after lengthy testing, that scanning their questionnaires was 22 times faster than keying them and saved them over 80% of the costs. I cannot imagine that market research is so flush at present that these savings are of no interest. Take a look now, for the competition surely will!

Published in Research, the magazine of the Market Research Society, January 1996, Issue number 356.

© Copyright Market Research Society/Tim Macer 1997. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.

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