Put a Cork in Software

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal's Chin Music (23-Jan-2007)

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The recent unveiling of Apple's new iPhone—an all-in-one phone, camera, media player, and PDA—at the Macworld Conference and Expo got me to thinking about the term "over-engineering." Technology is rife with over-engineering. Something tells me that if Steve Jobs and his R&D crew could have found a way to squeeze an electric shaver into the handheld unit, they would have done so. Perhaps it wasn't technological limitations, but the thought of women shaving their legs in public or the safety hazards of doing likewise while driving that gave them pause.

Don't get me wrong, I'd love to try one out, but I guarantee that within a week—after the novelty wears out—I'll only be using a fraction of what the iPhone offers. To tell you the truth, I'd settle for a phone that's just a phone that doesn't sound like I'm riding on a John Deere tractor. But let's face reality: Products are often made to be marketable first and usable second. Manufacturers are hoping that consumers and users pay more attention to that impressive list of features as opposed to what they truly need. The way I see it, the more something has, the more that can go wrong.

Software in particular—whether for retail sale or in-house use—is notoriously over-engineered. This is done for marketing purposes, to wow users, or to give vendors an excuse to bump up their prices. The problem with these types of Jack-of-all-trades software packages is that they do a whole lot of things adequately, but no one thing particularly well. There are some software makers who have succeeded in producing truly functional all-in-one solutions; however, for every one of them there are 10 who haven't.

It's time we take a step back and stop complicating software for the sake of marketability. It's probably too much to ask. How often do we hear about companies downsizing a product? No, it's not enough to perfect an existing product; software makers have to give users more extraneous bells-and-whistles so that they'll buy into it. Something needs to work the way it's supposed to first before they pile on more.

Sure, Microsoft Vista's new Aero GUI with its transparent "glassiness" is a nice touch, but I'll trade all that in if someone over at Redmond would spend more time hardening XP's security and making the application of patches less like a full-time job. Glassiness, in this case, are my eyes staring at the monitor every second Tuesday of the month.

Bigger is better? Unless you bought a PC within the last six months, you probably won't even be able to run Vista. Its minimum hardware requirements equal that of the small SOHO server I helped set up for a client a few weeks ago. My first exposure to the resource-intensive Vista reduced my PC to cinders and dimmed the lights of the aurora borealis. And this is just an operating system; I hadn't even run any applications yet.

Are consumers expected to buy new computers prior to buying a new operating system? Is this a conspiratorial handshake between the hardware and software industries? Bigger is better indeed.

Clients and readers are always telling me what they value most in technology: Productivity and simplicity. Unfortunately, lack of the latter defeats the former. I doubt that there were too many vendors promoting this at the recent Consumer Electronics Show. Perhaps we should stop commending those who allow their enthusiasm for bloatware and product marketability to override usability in the name of innovation, and start handing out a few kudos to those who are reasonable and practical enough to say "when." But with the billions of dollars invested in the "bigger is better" mentality, they would probably be led to the door like The Crucible's Proctor to the gallows.

Copyright © 2007 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
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