All of the industry-related software packages I took a look at for this year's review want you to work their way. I don't see how to get around that fact. After all, if you can't program your own code, then you'll just have to live with the way other people work. Another point about the software is they are not all doing the same thing. Some are better at certain aspects of the business, while some are better at others. For example, Designer's Vision 3 by Autodesk Inc. and Encyclopedia of Window Fashions from Aztec System Technologies help you visualize what your design would look like for the customer. They do that quite well. My seven-year-old daughter thinks it's a game and now plays with Designer's Vision 3. We don't tell her she's learning the trade, somebody is going to have to support us when we're old.
The machine I tested all these programs on is a 200 MHz MMX Pentium with a 32 megabyte RAM, something I think would be middle of the road for most computer owners trying to use one of these packages. The install process was time consuming on all of them because for some reason few companies ship their programs on compact discs. I personally could burn my own CD today for less than $3, so I don't think they are trying to save money by shipping floppies. I mention this because it is becoming more common these days to switch hard drives or recover from crashes, and it sure would save time if you did not have to baby-sit all those floppies during each reinstall.
Pros and Cons
During your first contact with a new client you have to be ready to go. What do you do now? A scrap of paper by the telephone to scribble notes? Maybe a customer form you made up yourself. Whatever it is you have to start the system rolling-record information about the client and what they want, kick out an estimate, invoice, order fabric and materials, schedule the installation and collect the money. To one degree or another all these programs do that. How they do that is really a matter of personal taste. I will list each program and some points I think you should take notice of about each.
• Top honors go to a small but very effective program, Hersperis by Roger Wenzel at Wenzel Computer Services, Chicora, PA. It embodies everything good about programming. The package leaves a small footprint on the hard drive. It has a nice Windows interface, and you can be up and running within an hour.
The nicest thing about this program is that it makes sense-a way to keep track of clients, jobs, invoices, estimates and inventory. I also like the price coming in as one of the lowest. For the smaller workroom this is the one to own. Which leads me to it's down side, bigger businesses would need more than this baby has under the hood.
• The Window Shop 3 from Innovative Software Systems International (ISSI), Melbourne, FL. This program was clean and orderly. You open up to a blank window of tabs ALIGNing with the top tool bar. I like things to start in a default mode ready to do work, but it's not a big deal to just click where you want to go. For a new customer you have to go to the "add a customer" window the long way around. Still, you can add a lot of info here, including an e-mail address in its own field (not in the comment field like other software).
Making up the invoice was simple and along the way it was easy to change entries. The reporting feature was nice and complete with many different ways to organize data and view the output. I would say a medium-size shop could use this program nicely.
• ShopOrder+, by Suz's Software, Inc., High Point, NC. This program is big on security, but I'm not sure why. You have to log-in with a user ID and password each time you start the program, which could be many times a day if you are like many computer users. I try never to have more than a few things running at once on my system and with e-mail, dial-up, browser, PIM and a word processor, I close things when I can. I would have liked to see an option to turn off the password.
What really baffled me was the serial port lock system. It seems in order for the program even to run you must have this adapter plugged into your printer port and additional software to confirm the lock. It still lets you use a Zip drive and printer, so why do I need it? Sure, it protects the manufacturer from people using its software, but it seemed intrusive to me and I had to get behind my computer to install it. You also have to set your computer settings to match what the program wants; it should be the other way around.
Still there is a lot to like about this program, too. Order entry couldn't be easier with ways to jump from one window to the next to enter everything in. I found it very easy to work with and adaptable. They have a fabricator and retail version that would make a medium storefront-type business proud.
• ProQuote by Aztec System Technologies, North York, Ontario, Canada. I love this thing, but boy does it need a facelift. Once you start it, you are whisked back in time and are running in a DOS environment. But what it lacks in looks it makes up for in completeness. You can handle the whole show. It runs fast and steady. Again, if you switch back and forth between applications it can be jarring going from DOS to Windows, but it does seem to give everything back to the system when it's running in the background-hats off to the programmers.
ProQuote does it all: customer tracking, invoices and estimates. It's upgradeable so it can be networked, which is a big plus. You don't want to build a large and successful business then find you have to trash the way you've done things to get there. For the long-term investment you would be wise to go with ProQuote, besides they are bound to come up with a nicer interface soon. ProQuote is for the small, medium and right on up to the very large company.
• Design Manager Professional 5 by Franklin-Potter Associates, Inc. How would you like to store everything but the fabric on your computer? If so, Design Manager can do just that. You can associate photographs, notes, comments and basic info about each job or client. It has a wonderfully easy to navigate standard Windows interface that makes sense. I always try to do things before reading the manual to see how far I get, and this was a breeze.
The ability to include photos is a big plus in my book, nothing shows a job like an image. After a while of entering data and looking at different reports I realized you almost would need one person just to do this all day. This package was a pleasant surprise and well worth the money. I would think a bigger design firm that has a full staff would want to use this one. I also wondered if this could handle a large database without being networked or going through hard drives like candy. In all fairness though, I was not able to test it this way.
That's a wrap of the software that helps you run your business. Remember, you still have packages like the Designer's Vision 3 from Autodesk Inc. that helps you sell the job by visualizing it on your monitor and Aztec's Encyclopedia of Window Fashions, which is a great database of different window treatment styles.
The software side of this industry has matured rapidly with many good programs designed just for the professional, and this group of reviewed products certainly shows that. My e-mail box is always open for comments or any gripes you may have about software. What this whole experience has showed me is that you do not have to settle for anything. There are more choices for software than covered here. Once you've narrowed down the decision, try them out yourself. The way you do things is what got you to this point, don't let some programmer try to tell you differently.
Rob Garbarini is a free lance photojournalist based in Southern California. He can be reached at: RGarbarini@aol.com.