90’s Software from Today’s Perspective

Just after moving to Seattle Washington in the mid-90’s, I interviewed for a job as a customer service representative for a small software company called NetManage. I was fresh out of college, a liberal arts major, and had yet to experience the world wide web. As the interview was wrapping up and we were shaking hands, the interviewer casually mentioned that I should take a look at their website to find out more about the company. Trying to make a good impression, I jotted down the URL as she quickly rattled it off. Before saying ‘goodbye’, I asked her to clarify whether the web address began with two W’s or three. I have no idea how I got the job.

The flagship application for NetManage, and the one I would be supporting, was called “Ecco Pro”. It belonged to a genre of software rising in popularity at the time called Personal Information Managers, or PIMs for short. On my first day of work, they showed me to my cubicle and left me alone to learn how to use the product.

Examining these events from the perspective of an aspiring UX designer is interesting, because at the time I had no reference point for judging the merits of a software application, or how an interface should look, or how I, as a user, should feel using the product. I had used a typewriter in college and my current method for tracking personal information was a 3” x 4” slip of paper folded and refolded a thousand times in my wallet.

In a way, this made me the perfect user to judge Ecco Pro. I didn’t know basic interface conventions, like drop-down menus, right-clicking, or tab navigation. I didn’t know how to cut and paste, much less what it meant that Ecco Pro functioned as a relational database. To me, the interface looked no less complicated than the cockpit controls of a Boing 747. Much later I would find out that Ecco Pro’s crowded and complicated interface was one of its most notable irritations.

One fundamental issue with Ecco Pro I gleaned from the many phone calls I answered from customers was that people didn’t really know who the product was for. Sales people wanted to use it as a contact manager. Small business owners wanted to use it as a database. Home users wanted to use it to make to-do lists and track appointments. The problem was that it tried to be all those things at once. As a consequence, it did none of them very well. The product was bloated with features and extremely difficult to use. Even seasoned users did not understand its advanced functionality very well. After a year and a half as a phone rep, I still couldn’t offer a good explanation as to who the product was for.

NetManage also made a mistep in not adjusting quickly enough to the rapid change in how software was being delivered to the customer. People wanted to download software; they didn’t want to buy it and then wait 3–5 working days to use it. If you wanted a copy of Ecco Pro, you had to purchase it on CD-ROM. We didn’t even offer download options for updates to the product. If you wanted to update Ecco Pro version 3.0 to version 3.01, you had order a physical copy of it and PAY for the shipping.

Those were a few of the problems that could have brought down Ecco Pro. In the end, however, it was one massive problem: There was a company down the street that was developing a product that would make Ecco Pro obsolete. Microsoft would release Office ’97 on November 19th, 1996. Among the many components of the new suite of products was a personal information manager called Outlook. Eight months later, NetManage would release its last update of Ecco Pro, version 4.01. Development of the software effectively ceased after that.