What is so productive about productivity software?

Microsoft Office is one of the most popular productivity software suites on the market.
Microsoft Office is one of the most popular productivity software suites on the market.

If you've ever used a word processing program, spreadsheet application or graphic design software, you've had some experience with productivity software. These are the tools people use to create and produce documents, presentations, databases, charts and graphs. It might not be the most exciting software on the market, but for many organizations, corporations and individuals, it's a necessity.

Although there are hundreds of examples of productivity software available, there's little doubt that Microsoft Office dominates the industry. That's partly because the Windows operating system (OS), also produced by Microsoft, is the most common OS on PCs today. In fact, more than 86 percent of all computers in homes and offices run on some form of the Windows OS (source: W3C). Many computer vendors include full or trial versions of Microsoft Office on new Windows PCs, which might partly explain the software's popularity.

Of course, another possible explanation for Microsoft Office's popularity is that it gives users the functionality they need to do their jobs. Because Office is a suite of applications produced by the same company, the developers for each program have the opportunity to make some application functions universal across the suite. In theory, such functions make it easier to combine elements from different applications to create an integrated document.

WordPerfect held the dominant market position in productivity software before Microsoft Office.


Some users may find programs from other companies are better suited to their own needs. Others might need specialized productivity software dedicated to a specific purpose. For example, screenplays follow a very specific format. Screenwriters might want word processing software that formats documents in the appropriate style automatically. There are hundreds of specialized productivity software applications that cater to practically any format you can imagine.­

Whether you choose to buy a suite of programs from a major publisher or download shareware from an enterprising developer, you need to keep a few things in mind. Perhaps the most important fact to remember is that productivity software's purpose is to make tasks easier, but it doesn't take care of all the work by itself. Some people install productivity software and expect it to make production a breeze. While the software might streamline the process, in the end it's going to fall to the user to generate the actual content.

So what exactly makes productivity software productive? Find out in the next section.

Getting Started with Productivity Software

Microsoft Word allows users to create and edit documents.
Microsoft Word allows users to create and edit documents.
©2008 HowStuffWorks

Maybe a better name for productivity software would be facilitation software. After all, it's the software that makes it possible to create documents, presentations, spreadsheets and related files. Good productivity software also takes care of tricky tasks like converting spreadsheets full of data into charts and graphs. But the initial effort must still come from the user.

The key to useful productivity software relies on how well the developers are able to anticipate a user's needs. Developers have to take many factors into consideration when programming productivity software. What's the application's purpose? How will people use it? What functions will they require? How should developers organize the software's interface? Ideally, developers figure out the features customers will need before the customers realize they need them.



When developers successfully answer these questions, they can make programs that are both functional and easy to use. If the developers don't think through the software thoroughly, the result can be a program that frustrates users.

Part of the challenge of developing productivity software is to organize program features in a way that's intuitive without copying another developer's work. Some users are picky about certain features. If they switch from one product to another, they might get frustrated if the second product doesn't organize its features in the same way as the program they've become used to.

Often, companies offer updated software packages with new features that also reorganize old features in new ways. Doing so risks the wrath of long-time users, who can become accustomed to a particular organizational format. For that reason, some productivity software companies build in an option to view later versions of software in the style of earlier versions. A few will even include an option that emulates a rival company's product in an effort to lure customers away from competitors.

Some developers choose to create open source productivity software. Open source means the developers make some or all of the programming code they use to create applications freely available to the public. That way, other people can take the code and make additions or alterations to create their own software. With an open source community, developers can monitor user response and tweak applications to better meet user needs. While this can benefit the software's users, it's harder to make money from open source software. Many developers rely on donations from users.

Companies offering proprietary software might not respond as quickly to customer needs, but the proprietary approach makes it easier to design a working business model around the software. If the software company is the only source for a particular application, then it's easy for the company to put a price on the software. Proprietary companies are also more likely to have the resources to hire top developers. While that's not a guarantee that a proprietary piece of software will be better than an open source version, it can be an advantage.

There's a relatively new movement in productivity software that ports applications from the desktop to the Web. What's the difference between traditional productivity software and the programs to which you can subscribe online? Find out in the next section.

Desktop Applications Versus Web Services

Zoho is a suite of online productivity software where all the applications are stored on remote Web servers.
Zoho is a suite of online productivity software where all the applications are stored on remote Web servers.
©2008 HowStuffWorks

Users install desktop applications on their local computers. The applications run by taking advantage of the computer's resources, including processing power, computer memory and hard disk drive space. Web services exist either wholly or partially on the Internet. The application's resources reside in a cloud on the computer network.

In general, desktop applications are more robust than Web services. That means desktop productivity software often gives users more options than Web service counterparts. If you need productivity software with all the bells and whistles, it's hard to argue against desktop programs.

Productivity software based on Web services may not be able to deliver the same options as desktop programs, but some people believe it's at least "good enough." Developers use languages like JavaScript to create applications on the Web. Using these languages, developers can create applications that provide the basic functions of desktop applications.

One of the attractive aspects of Web service applications is that you can access them from any computer connected to the Internet. Many Web service applications are interoperable across multiple platforms, meaning you can use the same application whether you're using a PC or Mac.

One advantage Web service productivity software has over desktop applications is the issue of compatibility. Even if a company buys the same brand of desktop applications for all its computers, compatibility issues can arise. Large companies might upgrade software in phases, so one department might end up working with software a version or two behind another department. When those two departments try to collaborate, problems can pop up. A file generated on a later version of a productivity software program might not work well -- if at all -- on earlier versions. While many desktop applications allow users to save files as if they were generated on earlier editions of the software, doing so can negate some of the current version's functions.

Web services don't have that problem, because the service provider can update functionality across the service in a short time frame. Users across the service don't have to worry about compatibility issues.

An emerging trend in productivity software is collaborative software. That means multiple people can work on the same file at the same time. For desktop applications, files must be saved on a networked disk drive that is accessible to all the collaborators. In Web services, users save files to a database on the Web. Collaborators can work on the file from any computer connected to the Internet. There are still some wrinkles: Developers will have to iron out to make collaborative software run smoothly. For example, if two people try to change the same information in a file in two different ways, what does the software do? How does it decide whose change is the correct one?

Google Docs is an online productivity software suite from Google which can be used collaboratively.
2008 HowStuffWorks

So that's the story of productivity software. It can help make your job a lot easier, but in the end the thing that makes productivity software is you. So get to work!

To learn more about software and other topics, get productive and click the links on the following page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Battelle, John. "All the world's a platform." The Guardian. Sept. 29, 2005. Retrieved March 26, 2008. http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2005/sep/29/digitalmedia.technology1
  • O'Reilly, Tim. "Inventing the Future." O'Reilly Network. April 9, 2002. Retrieved March 26, 2008. http://www.oreillynet.com/lpt/a/1697
  • "OS Platform Statistics." W3C Schools. http://www.w3schools.com/browsers/browsers_os.asp