Apple, Microsoft, Dell, IBM, Google, all of them … the companies that make the hardware and software we use … are, it would seem, ignorant, probably willfully so, of an important thing. We use their hardware and software in our work. Many individuals are like miniature institutions or corporations. Our HR department, our payroll department, our accounting department, our R&D department, our car pool, and everything consists of a handful of machines (a car, a desktop, a mobile device, a printer) and a single person to staff them all (you, me, whatever). We do quite a bit to implement hardware and software combinations that do the things we need. We have an address book, a way to use a phone, a file storage system, we install and maintain software to produce documents, keep track of numbers do other stuff. And we use the readily available standard hardware and software to do this, thinking all along that this is a good idea.
Now, I’m going to give you two scenarios, one imagined one real, to underscore why this is a huge problem. These two scenarios have very different meanings, and I’ll let you work that out.
Scenario 1 (false, but something like it could happen): Almost everyone is using the software produced by a single large corporation for much of their needs. For example, Microsoft Office is being used by most individuals who run businesses for documents, spreadsheets, data management, communications, etc. Then, one day, a Vice President at that large software company convinces the marketing department that there would be a great deal of positive publicity if they started to integrate a Holiday Celebration mode in their office suite, so that every document produced, including emails, would be linked to a template and the template would celebrate the current holiday. They also decide that launching this as a surprise would be fun, and they start with Easter. So, suddenly, without warning, every single document produced by a large number of us, starting on Good Friday and running through Sunday, has an easter bunny and a drawing of some bearded guy suspended, dead, on an ancient Roman torture device and he has a halo. Letters sent by the consultant working on a Mideast Peace mission for the United Nations representing an Israeli concern, being sent to the PLO have Jesus Christ on the Cross, and a bunny, on every one of them, for example. This would obviously cause problems, and it would be an entirely inappropriate decision on the part of the software company.
Scenario 2 (really happened, names obscured to protect the innocent): About 30 years ago, a reasonably large government agency was involved in negotiations to transfer a large parcel of valuable urban land, via a 100 year lease, from that agency’s use as a parking lot to a different agency’s use as contribution to building a sports stadium. In other words, a parking lot sitting in the middle of a downtown district being rehabilitated would get a new hotel and sports stadium built on it, as the center piece of that rehabilitation. Said agency had the last access to the critically important legal documents to allow this to happen, the team of lawyers made the final changes, the agency staff and director carefully went over every word of the document, then it was photocopied on a new fancy photocopy machine leased form a major hardware provider that I’m sure you’ve heard of.
About every ten pages, though, a two-line high strip of the sheet at a random location would not copy, but instead, be blank space. And, as it turns out, the only effect this had on the legal documents was to delete a very important sentence from the end of a very important paragraph, without any evidence that this ever happened. The missing data was noticed in a final proof read, a critically important meeting was postponed, the contracts shredded, and new photocopies made but this time with the paper oriented 90 degrees (the copier was capable of this) so that missing data would show up as a vertical stripe up and down the page, and those pages could be replaced. It was a mess. The executive director of the agency had the reps from the photocopy company in his office the next day and at the same time had his employees move all the machines in all of the agency’s buildings outside next to the nearest dumpster. The reps were instructed to pick the machines up and later, when a new contact for new hardware was arranged, all the machines were fitted with a warning. Other bad things happened to the photocopy company because of this incident.
Oh, what the heck, I might as well add a third scenario: The Map app that came with Apple’s IOS 6. Say no more.
Oh, and just so you know that I’m not being anti-Apple here, I’ll add two more: Unity, and every upgrade to Windows by Microsoft. These are all examples of changes done entirely for marketing reasons and that break current workflow.
When one sets up one’s hardware and software, one imagines efficiency. One imagines effectiveness. One imagines cool-ness.
One imagines sitting at one’s computer, and you get a call from an associate…
“We need such a such a thing to happen, can you make that happen? Now? Or we’re dead.”
And you start clicking on the keyboard and swiping the mouse around on your desk. Windows open on your computer and information flashes across them. Other windows open as still others close, various documents are accessed and various information flows form one bit of software to another. Within a minute or so emails with attachments are flying through Tubes on the Internet to far flung and important places and they make things happen. Nobody dies today. You kicked ass.
But what really happens is this. You’ve got everything pretty much working. For collaborative reasons, you are using Google Docs. You get that phone call. You go to open Google Docs and Google stops you. It wants you to upgrade your security questions. What was the name of your first dog? It wants to know the name of your fucking first dog. You never had a dog. You need to get to the documents, to make things fly through the intertubes. You open up another web site and it seems to have forgotten that you had clicked the “remember me” button and you have to log in again. What was that password? Meanwhile you flip open your laptop and turn it on, only to discover that it has chosen this moment to scan the entire hard drive for errors. Once that is done, the system starts an automatic upgrade and you need to reboot it three times. Meanwhile one of the pieces of software you usually use, that you need to access right now to get some data, has stopped working because it conflicts with some time-saving application you installed yesterday. Just then, when you open the document you’ve been working on for three days and go to turn it into a PDF file, you discover that your word processing software can’t handle files over 35 megabytes in size, your email system will not send them, and you can’t upload them to your web site because the arbitrary limit on document size set by the server is 10 megs. So all the work you did in preparation for this sudden emergency kick-ass deployment simply can not be used, sent, or accessed at all by anyone.
And that is when you realize the truth: The hardware and software you are using is a toy.
The hardware you get to use, and the software you get to use, as a mere “end user” (the EU in the EULA), as distinct from a company that produces much of its own software, has an IT department, and never upgrades or changes anything until it has been tested out…the hardware and software you get to use…is a toy, and in fact, not a very good toy. And the purveyors of that hardware and software do not seem to understand, or even know about, the possibility that you use their products for real live grown up stuff.
This is what the boneheads a Microsoft, Apple, Google, Dell, IBM, the rest of them, have produced for us. Quirky toys that don’t work when you need them to work.
Why is that?