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[GUEST POST] Escaping the Brand Trap: Moving Beyond Big Name Software

George Lenzer is a Computer and Network Manager at Cleveland Public Library and blogs at alt.think.

Do you exclusively use big name household products like toothpaste, laundry detergent and tissue paper? Not very likely, since they almost always are more expensive than their generic or store-branded counterparts…and generics are often just as good. Then why would you only use big name programs on your computer? One of the biggest hurdles to learning how to use a computer these days is the confusion that many users still have about applications.  A relative of mine has WordPerfect on his computer, but when asked if he has a word processor he says, “I have Microsoft Word”.  Or, another friend of mine once responded to me saying that I run Linux on my computer with, “Yeah, but what version of Windows does Linux run on”.  These are fairly common misconceptions among non-technical users.  (Some would say it’s one that benefits Microsoft and might be intentionally supported on their part.)  While many support techs groan when they encounter this, it’s a serious problem and it is preventing some users from being able to progress to that “next level”.  That’s what this blog entry is going to try and tackle.

To define the problem we’ll call it, “software overbranding”.  There is a similarity to the Kleenex phenomena, where that particular brand made such a strong impression that people casually refer to any brand of tissue paper as “Kleenex”.  However, it’s had the reverse effect in the computer world.  Instead of third-party brands of software, like word processors, benefiting from being called “Microsoft Word”, the average user assumes that if a program is not Microsoft Word, then it can’t do what Microsoft Word can do.  Savvy users know this is not true.  But how do they know this, and more importantly how can you learn to be a savvy user?

The first step in escaping the software overbranding trap is to completely forget about brands of software and instead think of categories of software.  You do it every day when you go to the store and make a choice between buying genuine Kleenex paper tissues or the much less expensive house brand from your drugstore.  You don’t think, “It’s not Kleenex, so it’s probably not as absorbent and is rough on my skin”, or, “I need tissue paper, but only Kleenex makes them, everyone else makes toothpaste and hand soap”.  Instead you think, “The CVS brand is on sale today and has 50 more sheets than Kleenex brand”.  This is the mindset you need to have with software.  Instead of thinking of Microsoft Word, train yourself to think, “word processor”.  Or instead of Adobe Photoshop, think, “photo and image editor”.  It’s the same as thinking, “tissue paper”.  If you can do this, then you can make the leap to trying something of a different brand.  Whether it’s another commercial product or a free alternative from the open source software world, you’ll have taken that first big step.

Once you can look at software in terms of categories rather than brands or specific products, you can start to break free of your application specific mindset.  Having a new application of a different brand than you’re used to, you can now begin to discover that most applications of any brand are capable of doing the same things that other brands can.  The same features tend to exist among software within the same categories.   The features might be called different things, but they are the same functionality.  Taking the example of Photoshop, the default “Emboss” filter which takes an image and makes it look “embossed” exists in nearly every other photo editor.  In the GNU Image Manipulation Program (commonly known as “Gimp”) the same filter is also called “Emboss”.  Another, more common, example is Microsoft’s Internet Explorer’s “Favorites” vs. Netscape/Mozilla Firefox’s “Bookmarks”.  They do the same thing, but have different names.  This kind of discovery will involve digging through the menus, taking a look at the options that you can set for your own preferences, and more importantly forgetting what you know about the original program you used.  This can be liberating because you might find things you like better about the new brand.

The final step in freeing yourself from the effects of software overbranding, is to open yourself up to new approaches.  Now that you know that there are others who make software of the same categories that Microsoft and Adobe or other popular brands do, and you know how to explore the menus and options of software to discover the features you want, you are ready to learn about different approaches.  In some cases, applications of the same category can have vastly different user interfaces.  Sometimes this is due to poor user interface design.  Other times it’s due to a different philosophy of workflow that the developer has.  And still other times, it’s quite possible that the interface from the more popular product is the poorly designed one.  At this point the choice is one of personal taste.  It’s also important to note that when you find software that has a vastly different approach, it shouldn’t be a deterrent.  In these situations it’s also extremely important to actually read the manual or any online resources to help you get started.  You may discover that the “odd” approach of this new program is actually better than what you are used to.  As an example, I had experience with the Adobe Premiere video editing application at one point.  The interface was familiar to me because of my background in working with music and audio editing.  Then when I switched to Linux, I needed to find a video editor on that platform and found one called Cinelerra.  The user interface is quite quirky compared to Premiere.  However, since I had freed myself of software overbranding, after getting acquainted with the strange interface, it was still reasonable to do work in it quite easily.  In fact, in a lot of ways it was much faster and more efficient.  I just needed to learn how to use it properly and my Premiere knowledge was not useful for that.

So, what does this mean to me, George?

  1. Forget about software brands and think of software categories.  This allows you to choose the applications that are a good fit for your personal needs on multiple points. 
  2. Forget your application-specific mindset and focus instead on actual program features as they exist within all applications of a certain category.  Developing this ability will turn you into one of those people who sits down at any computer, no matter what brand of operating system or application and just start working. 
  3. Open your mind to different ways of working with software.  Programs in a specific category will be quite similar but never identical.  When you are confronted with a new software interface and it looks very strange, don’t let that discourage you.  Instead read up on how to use the new software, it may be quite enlightening.