friday-rant
Software & Web Development

Rant: We Don't Need Any More 'Upgrades'

“I want to be let alone,” said Greta Garbo, referring to the unappreciated demands on her time made by fans and admirers (and not, as is often quoted, “I want to be alone” that is, to remain solitary). It’s possible to feel that way about software too as what’s laughably known as the upgrade cycle swings into action again. And again. And again. And again.

Where once were thrilled (OK, impressed) by new features that did useful new things - or did old things more easily - today’s upgrades are more of a forced march and like many a forced march they don’t lead to the most lovely destinations. We ‘upgrade’ because we fear that our systems will otherwise break, leaving us high and try, or because we are automatically ‘upgraded’ whether we wish to be or not. The word upgrade is itself oxymoronic; rather we cross-grade, downgrade, are degraded, can no longer make the grade thanks to the gradual effects of grade-Z changes.

This is not all new. Bloatware is a term referring to unnecessary accretion of features, often sloppily coded, that goes back to at least, oh, - Google Search… no, that’s no good, it must be older than that - a long time ago. There have always been murmurs of discontent at the marketing of new 2.0, 3.0 and so on products that weren’t overly different to the previous versions. WordStar once delivered a version of its word processing software that only added printer drivers.

But today the issue is off the scale, endemic, disastrous. We are deluged by bits and bytes in online services where quarterly new editions are common. Features move, morph or appear cosmetically different; services like Twitter appear to be in perpetual motion. The once excellent Yahoo Mail no longer works the way I want it to and nobody else seems much impressed either. This leads to a synaesthesia-like state. It is as if the fairies have rearranged the furniture in the living room every day, that your favourite newspaper has been redesigned, or your friends elect to add and subtract facial hair, exchange hair colour, speak in foreign languages… This is software reimagined as Surrealist masque. Or at the very least it’s bloody confusing.

Sometimes the upgrades can be positive, granted. In the SaaS/social age it’s good to see buyers voting electronically for features that make it into the next release of Salesforce.com. But you have to feel that that incredibly annoying noise you’re hearing might be the sound of barrel being scraped.

Take this, for example. A story on The Verge suggests that “the black theme was the number one feature request for Office 2013”. That’s a colour scheme. It’s not going to make you queue overnight, is it?

The big features are all there in all the big programs. There’s only so much you want to get in and when you’re coming to the umpteenth (great word ‘umpteenth’) revision you’re likely to be running out of ideas. And the buyers don’t really need you to do anything else apart from support the program and squish bugs. But the software industry model demands more and more revs for software vendors to get more and more money. There’s a beast inside software and that beast is hungry - but the buyers would be happier customers if you all just ‘let them alone’.

 

Martin Veitch is Editorial Director at IDG Connect

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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