A step back to shape the things to come

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IN CLASSIC textbook fashion, a fast-growing Seattle software company reckons it has spotted a niche market that computer users are desperate to see filled. If its booming sales are anything to go by, its youthful president is about to see his personal wealth soar - for the second time.

Jeremy Jaech was one of the co-founders of Aldus Corporation, joining in 1985 to help develop its desktop publishing software, PageMaker.

In 1990 he resigned a wealthy man, thanks to his shareholding in the by now publicly quoted company. 'I could have retired,' he said. 'I spent a year just playing golf and toying with my personal computer.'

However, he realised a gap was emerging in the business graphics software market. Many business users of personal computers use them for simple drawings - flowcharts, organisation charts, office layouts and so on. He felt the leading software companies that produced such programs - mainly Lotus and Microsoft - had evolved their products into fancy presentation programs rather than improving their drawing capability.

As he researched the market, he kept coming across people who just couldn't use the latest versions and kept going back to mid-1980s software to achieve what they wanted to do. The problem was that this excluded them from certain modern operating facilities, such as Microsoft's cut and paste, and marooned them in a time warp regarding printers and interfaces.

The answer was Visio, launched last year and expected to sell dollars 25m ( pounds 16.7m) of copies this year. As well as being an easy-to-use business drawing package, it features 'intelligent' shapes, hence the name of the venture, Shapeware.

The idea, Mr Jaech explains, is to have shapes that behave as users would expect them to, rather than in the way that it is easiest for a computer to portray. For instance, with conventional programs, making a shape such as an arrow larger or smaller alters the size of the whole arrow, making it difficult to line up arrows on the page. With Visio, users can choose to elongate only the tail, leaving the size of the head unchanged.

Users can program their own intelligent shapes, although the program includes more than 600 for more than 20 different job-specific tasks. Packs for more specialised applications are available off the shelf. These include flowcharts, office planning, electrical engineering, landscape planning, software diagrams and home renovation. 'Think of them like stencil packs for a computer,' said Mr Jaech.

There are similarities between Aldus and Shapeware, he said. 'Both exploited discontinuities in the market that created a window of opportunity for fleetfooted firms.'

There are differences, too. Working on his second fortune will be easier. 'This time, I know what I'm doing.'

(Photograph omitted)