Apps versus solutions

What’s the difference between an application and a solution, and why do people always mime air quotes (aka “bunny ears”) by wriggling four fingers whenever they talk about solutions? The answer is obvious if you think about it a bit. An application is a piece of solid, reliable code that’s been compiled into an executable file that’s been rigorously tested and does everything it claims to do: something manly, butch and capable. A solution, on the other hand, isn’t a compiled executable but some lesser order of being: a jumped-up template with a bit of scripting, a spreadsheet with delusions of grandeur, a mash-up of two lumps of something else held together with chewing gum. Something that will just about pass until a real application can be obtained – cue footage of application riding towards the camera across desert landscape, wearing a Stetson, and with Bonnie Tyler wailing in the background.

Apps versus solutions

Well, I say rats to such macho nonsense – a solution can often be exactly what you need, particularly when you need it quickly. Bonnie was singing about “Holding out for a Hero” for a reason, namely that applications are hard to write, take lots of time and so you have to wait for them. I just finished 15 months of working on one and I could do with a rest, but the client is already talking about Phase 2, which means another six months of work, and then Phase 3 after that. Plus, we need to shoehorn in all the leftovers that got cut from Phase 1 because we were running out of time… So I’ll happily settle for a couple of “solutions” as this month’s topic.

How about problem tracking and help text as an example? Like death and taxes, in my job there are always bugs to report and enhancements to request, and keeping track of them all is a real pain. How convenient then that SharePoint comes with an Issue Tracking template that you can deploy in about three clicks. SharePoint, as I’m sure you all know by now, is a free add-on to Windows Server that can be used to build intranet services within a department or company: there’s also an expensive larger version called Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS), which does much more stuff, but works on the same principles.

SharePoint’s Issue Tracking template has all the features you’ll need to implement a simple but effective “solution” that won’t cost you a penny. Just create a list from the template and customise it to your particular needs and – hey presto – bug reports can be created, descriptions, screenshots and documentation attached to them, priorities assigned and people designated to handle them. Whenever an issue is assigned or changed, the assignee will be notified by email so they can get to work. You can sort, group and filter these lists to create different views of the data for yourself or other colleagues, and you can set permissions so that only the designated people may create, edit or view the items in the list or alter its definition.

The standard Issue Tracking template comes with a few categorisation fields including Priority and Category, which deploy dropdown lists whose displayed contents you can change – for instance, you might want to add four possible priorities instead of three – and you can also add more fields of your own, say for dates, numbers, text or rich text as you require. I’d be surprised if it took you more than two hours to tweak an Issue Tracker just the way you want it, even with the heaviest customisation. And if you need to go further still SharePoint version 3, which came out at the same time as Office 2007, allows you to design in workflow control so that you can automate various stages of your issue-tracking solution.

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