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Easy Pieces

Remember the Lincoln Logs and Legos you used to play with as a child? Little did they know, the makers of those modular, snap-together toys were actually preparing you for the next wave of computer software.

It's called component-based programming, and it's about to show up on a corporate intranet near you.

Software makers have finally created setups that allow mere mortals to construct and customize fairly sophisticated programs from sets of prefabricated components. Not that you'll be building your own word processing system any time soon--right now, components are catching on mainly in corporate computing.

A good example is what Silicon Valley start-up AlphaBlox is shipping: Without knowing any programming languages and using only their Web browsers, users can now drag and drop that firm's graphical "blox" to create functionally rich business applications. Each blox (there are more than 20 to work with) is a complex chunk of software that a firm's computer department first has to customize so it can recognize and navigate the company's various databases and analyze data using standardized methods. Besides giving you better access to strategic data, the blox setup is supposed to eliminate the bother of writing a new program every time someone needs a new kind of report.

Component-based programs are catching on all over, thanks largely to plans put forth by Microsoft and Sun Microsystems. Their respective ActiveX and Java Beans architectures define just how programmers should build components that will plug together seamlessly.

Components still can't develop software quickly and accurately, and they don't fit together quite as easily as Lincoln Logs. But they're a big step forward, and you're sure to see more of them as time goes on.

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