I'm going to use this month's column to complain about a product. It isn't a huge product, but it highlights quality control and design issues that must be addressed. Two weeks ago, I installed a pair of products for which I had high hopes. They are the latest versions in a long line of honourable and worthwhile applications from Microsoft, so the "97" versions had a great deal of promise.

The products are AutoRoute for Great Britain, and AutoRoute for Europe. (AutoRoute is called Automap in the US). The initial impressions were good--decent maps, better route-planning algorithms, and the feel of an established quality product.

Then reality set in. To say I am disappointed with these two products is a huge understatement. Frankly, these two small, low-cost shrinkwrapped packages represent what is wrong with Microsoft. How can I sit here and wail and gnash my teeth about Microsoft? Isn't Microsoft the company that restructured itself and introduced fabulous product upon fabulous product? Indeed--and many of these products are delights that charm you with their thoroughness and impress you with their capability. Unfortunately, a few are dogs.

AutoRoute is a relatively new product from Microsoft, but it's a product with a long history. NextBase, a small UK development house, introduced AutoRoute years ago. The company almost single-handedly invented the concept of computer-based road planning for the domestic and small-business user. A few years ago, NextBase was ready to launch Automap in the US, when Microsoft snapped up the company and moved it to Redmond, Washington.

I'll start with the praise--the detail in the location database is considerably better, and the product provides much better support for villages and other small conurbations. The maps look good, and the routing engine calculations are obviously the result of considerable expertise.

The problems arise when you start using the program in earnest. First, AutoRoute now requires a CD-ROM drive and it runs only with the disc in the drive. To free my local CD-ROM drive, I copied the entire 524MB of CD-ROM data onto the root of a local hard disk, and ran the installation from there. To have to resort to such lengths is absurd, especially in the context of a laptop user who might not have a CD-ROM drive available. Yes, this route-mapping program is next to useless on most laptops.

The next problem is that the Ordnance Survey overlay maps from the product's version 4 CD-ROM are no longer available. As the name suggests, the Ordnance Survey maps of the UK are the official government reference maps that show all the terrain detail. They are, quite simply, the definitive map set of the UK. However, such data is not freely available from our government, and incorporating it must have cost Microsoft a lot of money. Such data may not be available in all the countries in which AutoRoute will be released, so this useful feature has been dumped by the wayside.

Now I'll complain about the user interface (UI). Programming the Windows 95 User Interface clearly states how things should look and feel. This book is the bible for app designers--except, of course, those designers who work in the consumer division at Microsoft and use black title bars, no window borders, and a menu system that defies belief. For example, the Exit AutoRoute Express menu entry is at the bottom of the eighth menu from the left, and this menu is labelled Options. Naturally, this menu contains the Copy and Print items, too. I guess the designers were so wrapped up in their product that they thought no one would want to quit it. I don't have a problem with consumer titles that use custom UIs to maximise their fun and productivity, but AutoRoute is a conventional application that shouldn't deviate from the style guide rules.

Did I mention the intensely irritating twiddly and shhh sounds that play when you move your mouse over a clickable object? At least you can disable these sounds. And the code that provides the rollout menus is dire compared to that found in Office 97--the AutoRoute menus stutter and jerk on a twin Pentium Pro desktop; the Office 97 menus slide with well-oiled grace.

The final killer is the memory requirement. The packaging shows that the product requires a machine with 8MB of RAM for Windows 95 and 16MB of RAM for Windows NT. Keeping a wary eye on the memory graphs in NT Workstation 4.0, I found that automap.exe happily consumed up to 14MB or so of RAM when calculating a route. Worse still, the program seemed quite loath to release the memory. Obviously, the designers recognise there's a problem because minimising the app reduces its footprint to a mere 900KB. Opening it again and performing more route searches soon increases the footprint to 12MB. You must minimise this program or close it when you don't need it.

I have just one final gripe. Although Northern Ireland is a beautiful country with appalling ongoing internal strife, it remains part of the UK. Having to buy the Pan-European version of AutoRoute to get Northern Ireland coverage is an insult. This coverage appears to be missing from the Great Britain version.

AutoRoute is a product that has lost its way. The reliance on the CD-ROM drive, the bizarre interface, and the memory requirements all indicate a product group that floated into orbit. That this new product slipped through the design review cracks at Microsoft is a point of considerable concern.