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?

Comments

  1. #1 Sou
    September 29, 2012

    So true, all of it. Phone and desktop productivity halved, risk doubled.

  2. #2 LeftWingFox
    September 29, 2012

    Because no-one cares enough to make a dent in the market. Compatibility and features are the major drivers of upgrades, and upgrades are the only way companies can maintain revenue flow.

    Open source isn’t immune from this either. Look at the fragmentation of Linux distributions and the willingness to break backwards compatibility for “superior” solutions.

    Perhaps a subscription system would allow companies to focus more on stability and bug-fixes, rather than annual upgrades where new features mean potential for new bugs. Short of that, developing proprietary systems in-house on controlled hardware is the only solution.

  3. #3 Greg Laden
    September 29, 2012

    Left: Good point. I think there are people who would argue with you about Linux compatibility . My understanding is that external compatibility is maintained at all costs while internal compatibility is a minor consideration compared to effectiveness and efficiency. Thus, a full blown multi-user multi-tasking system with utilities can fit on the head of a pin.

    But yes, paying the commercial developers to not be idiots may be the best way to handle this, and in fact, enterprise systems tend to be done this way, right?

  4. #4 Chessie
    Virginia
    September 29, 2012

    I have been thinking the same thing for a long time. After I get productive with something, those companies you mentioned make us upgrade or change something and lose our productivity so they can make more money on their new software or gadgets. You said it very well.

  5. #5 Sou
    September 29, 2012

    Years ago you used to ‘have’ to upgrade as soon as an app was released, knowing that it would have major bug fixes.

    These days you put it off as long as possible because you know you’ll have to spend hours and hours setting everything up again, to overcome their ‘user interface improvements’ :(

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    September 29, 2012

    I do want to say that with a few exceptions, your basic applications that are designed by the open source community to run on Linux do not have this market-driven upgrade problem.

  7. #7 Raymond
    September 29, 2012

    All of these horrors happen because these companies are dedicated to destroying productivity and making your life as miserable as possible. Why, when I was doing software QA, nothing was important than ensuring that we screwed as many people as possible with every upgrade. It was, in fact, the prime imperative in every test plan we wrote.

    Okay, let me rethink that. Maybe when I’m not being a whiny crybaby, I realize that this is part of the price we pay for living in a free enterprise system. Why do companies force upgrades upon us? Because they need the money. And, believe it or not, because they sometimes actually believe they’re making things better. It is often a deluded belief – and in my current role as an IT manager, I feel the pain of upgrades on a scale you cannot imagine – but one that techies nonetheless have.

    In short, there is pain in technology, as there is pain in all change. Don’t want to feel the pain? Then tell the technology to toss off and go back to that which shall never be upgraded.

    But I don’t feel particlarly inclined to return to carbon paper and endless typing. Nor do I want to live in a society in which companies can be told how their products MUST be delivered by some all-knowing entity. As such, I suck it up; take many deep breaths; find solutions that don’t require as many upgrades; and hold off as long as is reasonable, safe and prudent before plunging into upgrades.

    And when I do feel like being a whiny crybaby, I take pretty much the same attitude as your article.

  8. #8 Raymond
    September 29, 2012

    And your comment regarding the blessed purity of Linux? One word: Unity.

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    September 29, 2012

    I sat on IT committees for major institutional entities, so while my perspective is not that of an IT professional, I’m very aware of what you are talking about.

    But you are wrong in your fundamental premise, I’m afraid. I have very little to complain about with my Linux systems and the Open Source software I use. There need not be this pain. It is, as you point out, the business model and the free market that ruins it for everybody. The pain I’m talking about here is not inherent to the technology at all.

    So, well, it is actually YOU who is the whiny crybaby.

    Regarding Unity, do keep in mind that this is not a required “upgrade” and the fact that it is a bad idea for many people has simply resulted in many people not using it and doing something else. that is very different than what happens in free market driven standard corporate model systems that you seem to think are the only model. Unity may well be great for some people. Good for them, they can have it. Others will do something else.

    That discussion, by the way, is happening here: http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2012/09/29/which-linux-do-i-turn-to-in-my-hour-of-need/

  10. #10 webSimon
    September 30, 2012

    Part of the problem is, that these companies are so damn big. Apple tries to push a superior Map-Software to hurt Google, Microsoft tries to gain in tablet computing over Apple by forcing its users to use an tablet os on a desktop.

    Another problem is, that the software, these giants produce, is very generic stuff. So each improvement is a numbers game: They simply try to make most users in most use cases happy, which often results in none of them being happy.

    So the most used software nowadays Word, Excel, Gmail etc. is terribly broken: Not suited for the use case and controlled by big giants competing against each other. But there is light at the end of the tunnel: The app-markets and the web enable small businesses to develop individual software for specific use cases.

    These SaaS should solve the problem. Especially if you use it on very stable and slowly moving OpenSource systems.

    P.S.: I personally like Unity, espacially on my notebook.

  11. #11 ScottE
    Homer, Alaska
    September 30, 2012

    Has anyone experienced a flawless deployment of anything new for the first time? I can’t remember anything new that always functioned flawlessly. Yes, even UNIX (IRIX 5.1, 6.3 and 6.4 sort of leap to mind).

    Anything new always involves some level of workaround to deal with rough edges. If you want good success with your iPhone maps, use a competitor’s app. Or, though it might seem old-fashioned, buy a folding map and a guide. Working with workarounds has always been a part of computing, at least as long as I remember it. If you’re once bitten, be twice as shy about using the cloud.

    I don’t see these things you mentioned as toys, but as tools that have yet to acquire their polish. Inconvenience, at least in my experience, has always accompanied using a computer. These devices/softwares are seldom as polished as what they replace. But they do get better, incrementally, with time.

    Still. I think there’s value in choosing a single platform for all your hardware; it makes sense. I did this with IRIX, and I do it now with OS X. Change is uncomfortable, so the philosophy of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” strongly appeals to me. As a result, I think I’ve spent less time being frustrated by problems just because I was reluctant to seize what was new, and often delayed with it unless it became imperative to commit to some sort of change.

    Good luck!

  12. #12 Hardik
    September 30, 2012

    You say that a computer is a tool. Agreed. It is a tool just like a power drill.

    But whose responsibility is it to maintain your tools? I would contend that it is yours, not your neighbor’s or your nephew’s.

    Read a site like arstechnica.com even on a weekly basis and you will know enough about forthcoming changes and will be able to stay on top of things. That way you won’t be caught with your pants down in an emergency.

  13. #13 Drivebyposter
    September 30, 2012

    He’s not saying someone else needs to come fix his computer, he’s asking Big Companies to stop breaking (or needlessly limiting) it.

  14. #14 Greg Laden
    September 30, 2012

    Hardik,I’m well aware of that site. In fact, this article:

    http://arstechnica.com/apple/2012/09/apple-ceo-tim-cook-apologizes-for-ios-6-maps-promises-improvements/

    was my inspiration for writing this post.

    Drivebyposter: Right, exactly.

  15. #15 Kaleberg
    September 30, 2012

    In a sense calling our current systems “toys” is not unreasonable. The field is constantly changing as new technologies are rolled out from the labs to the end users. This, of course, breaks things, but consider the alternative. We’d still be stuck with monospace type, floppy disks, tiny screens, and dial up BB access. No one, not even Steve Jobs, if he were still alive, knows what the technology is going to look like in twenty or fifty years when it matures and computers are no longer toys, but reliable tools.

    There are only so many ways to manage this. You can defer updating your machines until you have a quiet period to deal with any side effects. You can keep an old machine or old bootable disk around so that if your new installation proves problematic, you can move back in time. You can keep nursing your old IBM PC Jr or Apple II or PDP-11/05 and not deal with all the red queen tsuris out there.

  16. #16 Drivebyposter
    October 1, 2012

    Kaaleberg:
    You have a kind of false dichotomy set up there. There isn’t an either/or situation where no one updates any technology ever vs.the way things are now.

    Updates could just be less shitty. Fewer but better and more user friendly updates would be preferable to hundreds of updates with little or no noticeable changes and/or massive “you have to relearn everything” types of changes.

  17. #17 yogi-one
    October 2, 2012

    How will you make any money if everything works?

    No, really. Almost everything you buy you buy because it solves some problem; it fixes something that doesn’t work.

    Any product has to fill a need to sell. If everything already worked perfectly, no one would ever need to sell anyone anything. (Now that might be a good thing, but I’m just sayin’)

    So, it’s not that the software companies don’t understand that we do real-wprld stuff. It’s that they DO understand if everything worked, there would be no market, because everything is sold based on a need to fix some already existing problem. The moment all your plumbing works, your plumber is out of business. Hence the need to break some stuff.

  18. #18 Iain Robertson
    Edinburgh, Scotland
    October 4, 2012

    My first Windows PC was an XP driven machine – I was quite happy with it and didn’t ‘Upgrade’ until the appearance of Windows 7, giving Vista a ‘body-swerve’. Happy with 7 as well, so I’ll give 8 a similar swerve… If Microsoft survive I may give Windows 9 a try….

  19. #19 Paul Anderton
    Manchester
    October 5, 2012

    Very true. I can’t use word any more since the last big revamp. I’d argue, though, that some apps seem deliberately designed to not work properly with others. I needed a hard copy of a google doc, but the library’s windows system wouldn’t print from google. So I forwarded it to my yahoo account, where I received a useless link to the same google page. so I downloaded it to my phone and emailed it to my yahoo account. Of course, it wouldn’t open the file. Finally I had to forward that email back into google mail and print it from there. It would have been easier to screen print and cut it out with scissors.

  20. #20 Greg Laden
    October 5, 2012

    Did you try the direct approach? Read the document off the screen and transcribe it onto paper with a quill?

  21. #21 daedalus2u
    http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/
    October 5, 2012

    There was an article about something similar.

    http://edge.org/conversation/-39the-clothesline-paradox-39-

    The idea being that until something is monitized, it doesn’t “count”.

    It was like the question which works better, the free market or government? That is really a trick question, the answer depends on what is trying to be accomplished. The free market won’t provide anything for “free”, it will only provide things that make a profit. But then the free market doesn’t produce things the most efficient way, or the best way, it produces things the most profitable way.

    Since the most profitable way is always through fraud, theft and deceit, that is what the free market eventually results in, unless there is enforceable regulations that prevent it.

  22. #22 fardels bear
    October 6, 2012

    When Ubuntu switched to Unity, it took me approximately 30 seconds to go back to the Gnome desktop, which Ubuntu made possible through their Software Center. This is quite unlike Windows or Apple. So, please do not put Linux in the same category as the for-profit system.

  23. #23 fardels bear
    October 6, 2012

    When Ubuntu switched to Unity, it took me approximately 30 seconds to go back to the Gnome desktop, which Ubuntu made possible through their Software Center. This is quite unlike Windows or Apple. So, please do not put Linux in the same category as the for-profit system.

  24. #24 Greg Laden
    October 6, 2012

    fardels, I agree they are not in the same category, for exactly the reason you cite, caveat below. The reason they are in the same blog post is because in my view Unity is a market drive, rather than function drive, innovatino

    Caveat: The prompt for me writing this post was talk over on G+ about how Ubuntu is letting the development of their particular under the hoood GNU/Linux distribution (below the desktop) drift in ways that would be OK with Unity but not ok with other desktops. Thus the consideration of “pure debian” and this, as long as one is considering the GNU/Linux system first and desktop second, the consideration of Fedora or another system.

Current ye@r *