Updated July 3, 1998

By Bruce Brown

Only the Good (Software) Dies Young

LIKE JAMES DEAN, the good often die young in the PC software world.

The best application doesn't always win the dominant market position -- in fact, the best product often dies in obscurity. Consider the examples of the Leading Edge Word Processor, Nashoba Nutshell, Fauve Matisse and Quarterdeck Desqview.

A decade ago, the Leading Edge Word Processor was a way cool, menu-driven word processor that boasted a ton of nifty features, some of which (like long file names) didn't become widespread until the advent of Windows 95. It was head and shoulders above WordStar and WordPerfect (the dominant products at the time), but it was sideswiped in the corporate smashup that totaled the original Leading Edge IBM clonemaker.

Nutshell was the progenitor of FileMaker. It was an easy-to-use flat file database that was light years ahead of market-leading PC products such as Q&A, but Claris bought Nutshell, ported it to the Mac platform, and then killed it in DOS. Only years later did Claris return to the DOS world with a Windows program called FileMaker (which didn't import Nutshell files because Apple didn't want to admit it stole its ideas wholesale from DOS).

Fauve Matisse was an extremely slick and powerful natural media paint and image manipulation program. It sold for a fraction of the price of the market leader Fractal Design Painter, and had a number of more powerful features, like floating layers, in its early versions. Matisse (and Fauve Software) died when the two brothers who owned it bet the farm on a high-end image-manipulation program called X-res -- and lost. Ironically, X-res was acquired by Macromedia, while Matisse was allowed to slip into a quiet grave.

Then there 's the case of Quarterdeck Desqview, perhaps the most strategically important death of the superior product in PC history. Forget about DR DOS and even the Mac. Desqview was THE blown OS opportunity of the last decade. In the late 1980s, Quarterdeck Desqview was a FAR better multitasking platform than Windows. However, Quarterdeck, whose pre-Chapter 11 management made Apple look good, never developed Desqview or seized the immense opportunity. At the strategic moment, Quarterdeck decided to put all it's resources into developing a tiny niche product called X-Windows, which at least seven of you out there have every used.

Quarterdeck had some real technological brilliance (the DOS upper memory manager was largely its creation), though. There was a time, in fact, when Quarterdeck did DOS better than Microsoft, and that has always been the kiss of death. Microsoft brought Quarterdeck down with its patented one-two punch: hardball of not illegal business tactics combined with slow but steadily product improvement. Even today, though, Windows still doesn't multitask DOS programs as well as Desqview did a decade ago.

Contributors to BugNet's special James Dean of Software Forum on InfoWorld have mentioned other superior programs that met an untimely end, including Improv, DeScribe, Ecco, Geoworks Ensemble, Tornado Notes and Xtree.

And there are more. "I still burn a candle for Brooklyn Bridge," declared one forum contributor.

What are your nominees for the James Dean of Software Award?

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