- The Washington Times - Monday, March 29, 2004

When was the last time you sat down, away from your home or office, and thought about the computing tools you are using?

I heard a story last week that seemed incredible at first, but is likely to be common in many offices, organizations and home businesses. It involved someone in an office, who was using a word-processing program to manage a mailing list of 6,000 names. They were coping well enough, but using a word processor to handle what is, essentially, a database, is like driving a Bradley armored vehicle to the local convenience store for a quart of milk. The Bradley will get you there, but it’s far from ideal for the task.

The same goes with word processors — or any other piece of software, for that matter. In the early days of personal computing, the word processor was shoehorned into many applications for which it wasn’t ideally suited. The “mail merge,” or form letter, feature of word processors is powerful enough to handle mailing lists. But the better, faster, easier way of doing it is with a sophisticated spreadsheet such as Microsoft’s Excel or Corel’s Quattro Pro. The classic alternative is to use a database program. When a mailing list gets above 100 names, it’s time to drop the word processor for a more suitable tool.

Most spreadsheets, including Excel and Quattro Pro, allow you to create a spreadsheet on which that 6,000-name list becomes a series of rows and columns. The columns would denote various components of the person’s contact information: name, address, city, state, postal code, etc.; each row would be a separate record.

While a 6,000-row spreadsheet is better than a word-processing document, it’s not the best solution. A list of such a size would be better served by a full-fledged database program. These used to be sold in two flavors, “relational” and flat-file. The latter was the digital equivalent of a box of index cards, which you could reshuffle and index easily.

The relational database was a way to set up “relationships” between various types of data, and today has grown into products that use highly complex computing tools to “query,” or use, data that resides on large, corporatewide computer systems.

Now, the newest version of one of my favorite programs, FileMaker Pro, bridges the gap between flat-file and relational programs. The newest version, released early in March and retailing for $299, contains 30 different “solutions,” including a contact manager that would be ideal for my friend with the 6,000-name list.

What’s more, FileMaker Pro is produced for both Microsoft Windows and Apple Macintosh platforms, making it ideal for mixed computing environments. Details can be found at www.filemaker.com.

Similarly, Dymo’s LabelWriter 330 Turbo, which retails for just under $210, is a far better solution for printing one-at-a-time address labels than anything else on the market. It beats using address label sheets in a laser or inkjet printer because the device is dedicated to the task at hand; label sheets can jam and stick in even the best of desktop printers.

The bottom line: It’s a good idea, every now and then, to review the way you handle various tasks via computer, and see if there’s not a better idea out there. You might be pleasantly surprised at how many such solutions can be found.

E-mail MarkKel@aol.com or visit www.kellner.us.

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