Early last century a manual typewriter could be used for twenty or more years with an occasional repair, a new ribbon and a can of oil. When a new model did come out, most people could catch on to the changes with very little training so upgrading every few decades was not traumatic. Today, it’s an entirely different story; the modern “typewriter” is Microsoft Word, a program that contains one thousand five hundred commands. The company explained the need to completely overhaul the user interface in the latest versions because this is ten times the number of commands available in the first version - nearly one hundred new features added per year. Imagine if typewriters had evolved this way what it would have done to the productivity of a secretary who could type eighty words a minute if the keyboard was rearranged every year!
The question is why did devices from typewriters to locomotives go unchanged for decades while current equipment is upgraded almost every year? Additionally we should ask if the current approach is better or worse and if it is worse, what is being done to make things better? Do we always have to live with the fear that “they are going to upgrade our system again”? Fortunately – as hard as it is to believe – we’ve started to turn the corner and the new direction will be much better than what we’ve suffered through in recent years. This may sound like the usual snake oil from promoters who say they need to sell you a better product since the ones they’ve been selling you for ten years are terrible.
Locomotives stayed the same for years because they were made out of steel (hardware) and they could not simply be reprogrammed. And they also worked “good enough” that improving the hardware was not deemed necessary – even without any sophisticated ROI calculations. The culprit - it turns out - is software. Electronic devices today are made of hardware and software.
Writing software is merely creating a string of zeros and ones (the program) that can rearrange other strings of zeros and ones (the data). A program uses the processor (hardware) to accomplish this rearrangement and the processors most common task is to add zero and one or one and one and store the answer in a “bit” of memory. The apparent magic in computers is due to the fact they can perform this simple functions millions of times per second. Because this programming process made it relatively easy to modify things – no screwdriver required, the process of upgrading has become commonplace. It also appears inexpensive because the companies do not consider the end user costs associated with upgrading and retraining.
Designers and programmers love to tinker with software and marketers love to have new features to boast about. The amount of money a software company can make is directly proportional to the number of times they produce upgrades. The fact that these upgrades might destroy users’ productivity for a period of time and are not actually desired by most users is of little consequence – particularly if the company has a monopoly on the product and everyone feels obliged to be “compatible”.
It’s likely that someone in these companies ask “what happens when this process produces software that is so ‘feature rich' users spend full time upgrading and never actually do anything productive”? If someone did mention this, their superiors would tell them not to ask such questions again. We may be approaching that point now and fortunately the issue is being addressed from a surprising direction – cell phones and mp3 players. Keep in mind that upgrading is not simply the process of downloading the new version and lying when you are ask if you read and agree to the End User License Agreement. Even if you need none of the new features, the true upgrade cost also includes time you spend every day for months looking for that feature you do use that has been renamed, relocated or both.
Cell phones were originally used for making phone calls and of course everyone under ninety needed an mp3 player. When someone thought it would be nice to get email when away from the office and also eliminate the dedicated mp3 player, the cell phone as a computer was born. The genius to the modern smartphone is not just that it can download programs – “apps” – but that these apps are very simple to use. They are not the bloated programs we have been forced to use in the past. It certainly is not clear how this new model will evolve in the future but the success of the smartphone and it’s “app store” is strong evidence that people like this simplicity.
This does bring up one interesting question – what level of capability is “good enough”. For years audiophiles argued that real music had to be played on LP records and CDs just didn’t sound right. Whether there was really a discernible difference in those two media is still debatable but there is no doubt whatsoever that mp3 storage and playback via “earbuds” represents a significant degradation in quality from CDs. The comparable effect can be seen in the difference between a high resolution photograph and grainy compressed version. But apparently the majority of people today have decided that mp3 quality is “good enough”. There is a very thorough discussion of this topic in a recent Wired Magazine article. It goes beyond computer and music issues and addresses the general problem of product quality and complexity very thoughtfully.
It seems that in software as in music, users are choosing simplicity over features when they have a choice. There may be hundreds of features in a desktop email program but the smartphone versions are adequate for a growing number of people. It’s possible that in the drive to compete more “feature rich” versions of today’s simple apps will be developed and it will be interesting to see how the market reacts. I for one am thrilled that installing a new program is no longer a days long process involving a hardware upgrade and numerous calls to tech support.