FORTUNE Small Business

Macworld's best debut: Design tool that Flows

Small businesses are filling in Mac functionality gaps. Meet GridIron, creators of a powerful - and visually stunning - change-management application.

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SAN FRANCISCO (FORTUNE Small Business) -- Is it just me, or does it seem telling that the innovative products coming out of this year's Macworld Expo are no longer Apple gear?

Sure, new twists on Apple technology like the Time Machine back-up system, movie downloads for iTunes, or the uber-portable MacBook Hair - sorry, "Air" - are steps forward for the company. Time Machine, in particular, may do small businesses the ultimate favor: It makes it hip to back up your content.

But the innovative products I was struck by at this year's show come from small businesses with little direct contact with Apple Inc. (AAPL, Fortune 500) or Steve Jobs. Many of these operations developed their own solutions to problems posed by Apple equipment - and those solutions are more creative than those Apple came up with itself.

I particularly liked what one company, Ottawa, Ontario-based GridIron Software, is doing with a business automation product called Flow.

Flow is tricky, so stay with me. It attempts to track the relationship between the software on a computer and the files that software creates. It then takes that relationship and graphically displays it so that it can be tracked over time. That display is stored in an ordered list that can be revisited, studied, modified, updated and even rescued from the trash.

Imagine that all the elements that go into this page on this website could be displayed as graphical elements that can be viewed all at once. That means every Word document, every data file, every graphics file, every image file and all the mixes, mashes, composites, whatever of them all, can be seen - and more importantly, manipulated - in real time.

Why would you want that?

Let's say I filed the wrong photograph to go with this story. Hey, I'm a busy guy. Rather than making my poor editor open up the HTML editor, the picture editor, the caption editor and all the other applications that create the elements needed for the image to appear in this page, she can make the changes directly from GridIron's software in one step. Anybody who has ever faced a mountain of revisions when one screw-up leads to errors across dozens of files knows how powerful an idea this is.

Intrigued? Check out their website, gridironsoftware.com, and see for yourself.

"We really tried to make a system that would automate the process of keeping multi-element files organized," says Steve Forte, 37, president of GridIron. He founded the 21-person firm five years ago. "The idea is to allow anybody to see where everything that goes into a file comes from."

Forte loves keeping things organized. He previously worked in the world of grid computing, which allows computers to share processing and other resources to crack problems. He got the idea for GridIron while running his previous business, Creative Shack, which was acquired by Mitel Networks in 2001. Through that company, Forte developed software for everybody from Apple to Sun Microsystems (JAVA, Fortune 500) to IBM (IBM, Fortune 500), and he realized that what the industry needed was a modular way to track what was where on a particular system.

"You learn pretty quickly doing development for big clients that what clogs up most operations is not the first round of a project, but keeping track of the fixes over the life of the deal," Forte says.

In my brief demo and testing of Flow, I found it intuitive, easy to learn, and full of powerful features. For example, I loved being able to see not only all the pieces that go into a given file, but also being able to see the changes in the elements of that file in real time. Very slick.

Gridiron plans to offer a networked version of the Flow software late this year. That will allow several collaborators to track and update multiple files at once.

Honestly, I cannot wait to get my hands on this software and see if it can stand up to some real-world punishment in my own hard-to-organize business.

That's more than I can say for the Time Machine, the MacBook Air, or movie downloads on iTunes.  To top of page

What's your take on Blum's Macworld report? Join the discussion and tell us.
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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.