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Drawing Up a Computer Program, Literally

MARKETING manager John Mandell is zipping his mouse around a computer screen, changing data, and entering something called a "decision tree." "The idea was to create a program that was easy for people to use," he says.

Sure, I think to myself, as the screen fills up with lines and boxes.

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Borland International introduced this new software, called ObjectVision, to allow nonprogrammers (like me) to draw sophisticated programs rather than write them.

After a little practice, I too was zipping about the screen, drawing new forms, and building decision trees (the lines and boxes).

ObjectVision is part of a new class of software that relies on visual programming. Researchers expect more software to use visual programming in the future because pictures in many cases are much easier to understand than words.

For example: To make an invoice automatically give customers a $2 discount on a $10 item when they buy more than 25, a Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet formula might read: @IF(quantity>>25,price=8,10)

ObjectVision is much more intuitive. It helps users draw a "Quantity" box, a horizontal line to a condition box that reads ">>25," and a conclusion, "$8"; below that, another line with a box marked "Otherwise" and a conclusion, "$10." It's actually harder to describe this picture than to create it.

The program links this decision tree to the "Price" field that the user includes on a customized form. Then, whenever someone fills in the "Quantity" field, ObjectVision automatically calculates the price.

The program can consolidate information from several software programs, such as a word processor or a database. It's developers say it will save hours spent learning a programming language. ObjectVision won't make instant programmers out of nonprogrammers. It still requires familiarity with function commands in a spreadsheet.

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Researchers say it could take 10 years before a system emerges that novices will use comfortably.

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