Upgrading to worse

It all starts with my mother. Now with more better than nothing!

My mother has an Intel Mac Mini that she got a few years ago. It works like a champ, and she has had fewer problems with it than any other computer she has ever had.  She does not have the need, interest, eyesight, or digital dexterity to use chip jewelry.

Before she got the Mac, she was using a Windows 98SE machine.  It was old, she’d had it quite a while, and it worked just dandy for her.  She liked it very much, and was pretty choked when she finally had to replace it.

There were two programs that she particularly liked on her Windows machine:  Quicken, and Maximizer. Maximizer is/was contact management software, which she used as an address book, calendar, to-do list and more.  (I used to work at the company that made Maximizer).  These two programs, along with a Web browser, email client, and some Word-compatible word processor, were pretty much all she used on the computer.

They don’t make a Canadian version of Quicken for Mac. Maximizer has unfortunately remained convinced that their only market is Windows users (too bad, as it was very useful stuff, and there was nothing quite like it).  Mom had to make a decision, and at the time, any new Windows machine she got would have run XP, which was as different to her as anything else would be. Also, I was using a Mac as a daily driver, and I’m the one who gets called when Mom has questions.  So Mom went with the Mac because the reasons for doing so were stronger.  It doesn’t matter whether you agree with this or not.

It is hard to explain to people who don’t know much about computers but actually think about what they are buying why computer X can’t run the same software as computer Y.  Normally, when dealing with boring products that perform a function, we define product Foo as being “better” than product Bar largely because Foo can do everything that Bar can do, and/or do more than that, or do it better.

You know–“This vacuum can pick up everything that vacuum can, AND it can pick up bigger things, and it can do stairs and it filters more crap out of the air.  So it’s better and it costs more.”

But because the personal computing market has been fundamentally defined by operating systems, we’ve been comparing apples to oranges (sorry) the whole time.  You can not buy an operating system that does everything the other operating systems do AND more.  Not simply.  And shut up about virtualization unless you are willing  to go set it up for my mom.

We use really screwy metrics to make our purchase decisions for personal computers, like:

  1. Computer X is faster (which is usually irrelevant, as all options are usually faster than the user needs)
  2. Computer X is what more people use (which is irrelevant, if you are only using formats that are cross-compatible)
  3. Computer X has more software titles available (which is irrelevant, because most people use their computer for a very small number of tasks, and almost becomes  a contradiction of #2 anyway)
  4. Computer X is ready for the next operating system (which is a really stupid argument, because despite what you see in ads from operating system manufacturers, most normal people don’t buy computers in order to get an operating system. They buy computers to do things.)

I used to look down my nose at people who bought computers because they looked nice, or were thin, or fit in their luggage, or matched their eyes. But you know, those are probably more reasonable arguments in most cases than any of the four above.  You’re better off making sure you like the screen, the keyboard and the mouse than the processor.

But let’s get back to Mom’s problem.  Last year, a friend of Mom’s sent her a Flash e-card.  It was one of those nice advent calendar thingies. It looks like an old town. You go to the calendar every day in December, and you click on the number of that day, and something nice happens–some decorations go up, some birds fly around.  It’s a sweet little thing.

This year, Mom got two of them.  She followed the link to get the cards, and was told that she didn’t have a compatible version of Flash. So she tried to update her Flash plug-in and was told that she didn’t have a compatible version of her browser. She tried another browser, and got the same message. So she tried to update her browser, and was told that the browser no longer supported her version of the operating system.

So there we are: Mom has to install a new version of her operating system JUST TO RUN AN E-CARD.

  • Does the e-card even use the new features of Flash?  Who can say?
  • Does the browser actually need its new features to run the Flash plug-in? Who can say?
  • Does the browser actually need all the functions of the new operating system just to run the Flash plug-in?  Who can say?

But nobody is going to say, and it wouldn’t matter if they did, because the answer is still “Install a new version of the operating system.”

Despite what it looks like in the ads, updating or installing a new O/S is not a super-fun happy time. You should back up your stuff first.  No matter what, a bunch of your settings will change, and a bunch of stuff will be in a different place, or have different names, than what you were used to.  It takes a long time too.  Oh yeah–and it costs money.  I live about half a continent away from Mom, so I have to bug a friend to help her out with this.

Yes, the easy way to look at this is particular problem is “It’s not worth it just for an e-card.”  But while it’s a masterfully-chosen example, it’s not just e-cards that this affects. I have recording hardware and perfectly functional computers in my basement which are no longer considered usable because they are no longer supported by operating systems.  The recording hardware and software I use on the current Mac I am writing this on will stop working if I “upgrade” the operating system.

It works just fine now.  And after I upgrade, it won’t work at all.

And the only solution is to buy more stuff–stuff that doesn’t work as well for me as the stuff I am using, by the way.  And of course, the new operating system does more, but not necessarily more of what I want it to do, and it does so at the cost of performance on the computer I am using.

In short, upgrading will make this computer worse.

Everything all the way along here is broken, as far as the user is concerned. Every link of this annoying chain of compromise was forged by a decision that something was more important than providing actual daily value to the user. And the user is the customer.

Here I go again: Software companies exist to make money.  They want to sell a new version of the same thing on a regular basis to an ever-increasing user base. I say that so often that even I am tired of hearing it, and I love the sound of my own typing.  It’s true though, and there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the idea.  The problem is that the model operating system manufacturers use is more appropriate to applications than operating systems.   I believe it was JWZ who said “My application shouldn’t break just because you did something as trivial as replace an operating system.”  I think he was going at that from a different angle, but it still obtains.

And it could get worse.  There is some conjecture that Microsoft wants to move to an annual OS update schedule like Apple’s. That’s a new operating system every 12 months. That’s an ASS-TON  (Kelvin) of broken drivers, suddenly obsolete software and hardware, and seriously non-productive users. Which is nothing but good news for hardware and software manufacturers and IT types, and thus pits them squarely against users.

You should not need to buy a bunch of new stuff just because a small thing on your computer has changed.  And when you get new stuff, it should work better than the old stuff.  All rationalizations about why this is not so ONLY make sense if you accept that this broken system is how It Has To Be.  It is not.

Right now, personal computing (including mobile) is a marketing scheme that happens to involve computers, and it is hurting itself and its users.

I had an idea though.  I’ll get to that next time.

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