It's called feature-glut. And if you've tried fancy new software lately, you know what it is. When the program starts up, dozens of little icons splay across the top of the screen. They're supposed to be helpful, but no one has a clue what they do.
Ironically, software companies make money this way, packing a program with as many features as possible. They know that everyone will find something they like in the program. Unfortunately, this one-size-fits-all thinking is wasteful. Many computer users end up spending too much money on programs that are far more powerful than they need - and are needlessly complicated to boot.
Happily, this is beginning to change, at least among the worst offenders of feature-glut: word processors. I've been experimenting with several of them recently, and three things have become clear.
First, it's hard to tell one big-league word processor from another. They're all loaded with special features. I use Microsoft Word on the Macintosh and WordPerfect on my Pentium. Using some of the competing products from smaller companies proved eye-opening.
Second, these smaller companies are leading the charge away from the one-size-fits-all mindset. Since people use word processors in different ways, they say, let's target some of those niches.
Third, computer users can benefit from these innovations.
For example, many people happily type away on older computers with limited hard-disk space. So WordStar International is marketing WriteNow as the lean alternative to its bigger brethren. WriteNow uses 1/12th the disk space of Microsoft Word and demands far less memory. It runs faster, too.
Of course, WriteNow doesn't include all the special touches to enhance the look of your documents. And it can't handle accents on foreign words the way Word and WordPerfect do. But before you grab for one of them, take a look at Nisus Writer, which has made languages its specialty.
On properly equipped Macs, this word processor handles everything from Spanish to Chinese to languages written right-to-left, such as Arabic and Hebrew. If you do that sort of word processing, try it out.
Another good way to get a word processor is to buy a software suite. These packages bundle a word processor with spreadsheet and other software at very attractive prices. The high-end suites - such as PerfectOffice and Microsoft Office - incorporate the big-league word processors. Other bundles - Microsoft Works (for Windows) and ClarisWorks - include simpler but perfectly usable word processors.
Buying low-end products saves money. Microsoft Works - including a spreadsheet and other capabilities - costs $49. To upgrade to Microsoft Word for Windows 95 costs $109.
Expect more niche-marketing. Claris has already equipped ClarisWorks with a special education package for teachers and added special home-business templates to its database program, FileMaker Pro. Dave Larson, vice president of marketing for Claris, plans even more aggressive targeted marketing.
Even Microsoft has reduced the number of icons in its latest version of Word for Windows 95. Users told the company they wanted simpler programs rather than more features. That explains why Microsoft has shelved some of Word's least-used functions and included automatic spelling corrections, such as changing ''teh'' to ''the.'' It underlines other misspelled words while users are typing so they can go back and change them.
That's the paradox of software. Today, simpler is often better, because adding features masquerades as more power. In the future, though, I think software makers will figure out that ''simpler and ''more powerful'' go hand in hand. Who knows? Maybe one day I'll dictate this column to my computer and stop this typing nonsense for good.
* In the meantime, type out your comments and send them via the Internet to firstname.lastname@example.org.