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Posts Tagged ‘Microsoft’

Why We Have Bad Software

July 25, 2016 Leave a comment

Many people get extremely frustrated with their interactions with technology, especially computers. I notice this a lot because I work with IT where I am a Mac generalist: I do general support, programming, a bit of server management, and a bunch of other stuff as well.

And when I say “many people” get frustrated I should add myself to that list as well because, either directly or indirectly (by trying to help frustrated users) I am also exposed to this phenomenon.

The strange thing is that generally the problems don’t happen because people are trying to do something unusual, or using some virtually unknown piece of software, or trying to do things in an overly complex way. Most of the frustration happens just trying to get the basics working. By that I mean things like simple word processing in Microsoft Word, simple file access on servers, and simple synchronisation of calendars.

None of these things should be hard, but they often are. In comparison doing complex stuff like creating web apps, or doing complicated graphics manipulations, or completing advanced maths or stats processing often works without a single problem.

Why is this? Well I guess I need to concede (before I offer my own theory) that one reason is that there are far more people doing the simple things and they’re doing them far more often, so if there was a certain failure rate with any process it would show up more for the stuff that is done a lot.

But those simple tasks, like word processing, have been with us on computers for several decades now so it might be reasonable to ask why haven’t they been refined to a greater degree than they have. Is it really so hard to create a word processor which works in a more intuitive, reliable, and responsive way than what he have now? (yes, I’m talking to you, Microsoft)

Well there is. But it involves doing something a lot of people don’t want to do. It involves staying away from the big, dominant companies in IT, especially Microsoft. Well not entirely, because realistically you need to run either Windows or macOS (Linux just doesn’t really work on the desktop) and you need to buy some hardware from Dell, Apple, etc. But what about after that?

Recently I have tried to keep away from the dominant companies in software. For example, I operate a zero-Microsoft policy and am progressing well on my zero-Adobe policy as well. In addition I avoid all the big corporates’ products (Oracle, Cisco, etc) wherever possible.

I don’t think it’s healthy to take this to extremes or to where it becomes more a political thing than a practical one, because then I might end up like the open source fanatics whose decisions are based more on ideology than pragmatism. But it is still a useful guideline.

And I am pragmatic because I do have Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Suite (all fully licensed) on my machine, I just almost never use them. And, of course, I do use a Mac and therefore use the hardware and operating system made by Apple, the biggest computer corporation in the world.

Although I readily admit to being an Apple “fanboy” I do have to say that, considering the huge resources they have available, they do often fail to perform as well as they should. For example, software is often released with fairly obvious bugs. How much does it cost to hire a few really good bug checkers?

And sometimes Apple products take too long to properly implement some features. With all the programmers they could hire why is this?

I don’t want to pick on Apple and I really have to ask the following question: Microsoft, why is Office 2016 for Mac such a pile of junk? Why is it so slow? Why is it so ugly? Why is it so lacking in functionality (that is one area where Microsoft usually does well: their software is crap in almost every way except it has an impressive feature set).

And just to complete bashing the big three, what’s happening at Adobe? Why does In Design take a week to launch on anything except the latest hardware? Why are there so many poor user interface design choices in Adobe software? And why is the licensing so annoying?

I think the failure of the big companies to create products as good as they should be able to comes back to several factors…

First, large teams of programmers (and probably teams of anything else too) will always be less efficient than smaller teams simply because more time will have to spend trying to coordinate the team rather than actually doing the core work.

Second, in large teams there will be inevitable “disconnections” between the components of a major project that different individuals make. This might result in an inconsistent user experience or maybe even bugs when the components don’t work together properly.

Third, it is likely that many decisions in a large team will be made by managers and that is almost always a bad thing, because managers are generally technically ignorant and have different priorities such as meeting time constraints, fitting in with non-technical corporate aims, or cutting corners in various ways, rather than producing the best technical result.

Fourth, large companies often have too many rules and policies which are presumably formulated to solve a particular problem but more often can be applied without any real thought for any specific situation.

Many software projects are too large for a single programmer or a small team so some of the issues I have listed cannot be fully avoided. But at least if computer users all understand that big companies usually don’t produce the best products they won’t be surprised the next time they have a horrible experience using Microsoft Word.

And maybe they might just look at alternatives.

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The Apps I Use

April 2, 2016 Leave a comment

I work in IT doing general computer support and web programming (and anything else to do with Macs and other Apple stuff). Sometimes when looking at problems my clients are having it is suggested I am a bit negative about the programs they are using and have been asked: well if you don’t like (whatever program is under discussion, usually Microsoft Word) what do you use instead?

That’s a good question and I thought I might answer it here. My main computer is a 15 inch i7 MacBook Pro with a high resolution screen, an SSD, and 16G of RAM, so it’s a moderately high-spec machine but not outrageously so. The programs I use could be used by almost anyone else with a fairly modern computer – as long as it’s a Mac, of course.

The programs I use most are in my Dock so to answer the question of what my alternative apps are I’ll just list all the stuff in the Dock and briefly say why they’re there…

General System Tools

Finder. This is Apple’s program which creates the desktop environment for file management. It is a standard part of the system so it might seem pointless listing it here, but there was a long period of time when I did use an alternative called “Path Finder”. That is a great app (like the Finder on steroids) but in the end it just didn’t offer enough extra to replace the good old Finder.

Helium. This is a small app which displays a web page in a floating window. On my Mac I have the Dock and menu bar hidden so I created a small web based app (using PHP) to display the information which would normally be in those two locations (plus a bit more) such as battery level, wifi signal strength, my public IP address, etc.

Astrill. This is a VPN service I use when I want to maintain privacy or make it look like I am actually in another country. I won’t say anything more about this!

Cisco Secure Client. This is the VPN service I use at work.

Server. This is Apple’s server suite which includes services such as web serving, file sharing, and many others.

Parallels. Sometimes I need to run Windows apps (I estimate about 10 minutes per month) just to check that my web-based programs work OK on Windows. Apart from this I have no need for Windows at all. In fact I spend about 10 times as much time maintaining it as I do using it!

Remote Desktop. This is Apple’s remote management service which allows me to take control of other computers screens, install new software, get status reports, etc. I use it a lot to do remote control of other people’s Macs to help with problems and to monitor and maintain remote servers.

Productivity Apps

Notes. This is Apple’s notebook app which automatically syncs with my iPhone and iPad. I keep all sorts of temporary information here which needs to be accessible from all the Apple devices I use. For example, I might write a note here on the iPad about a wine I am trying and copy the synced version into the main database on my laptop later.

Maps. I use Apple’s map program more than Google Maps, although I do use the Google street-view feature sometimes so I do have both installed.

Reminders. I use this to keep track of my list of things to do. It syncs across all of my devices.

Calendar. I have several calendars, mostly on Apple’s iCloud service, where I keep track of my tasks for the day. These also sync across all devices so I get reminders on my iPhone for appointments entered on the laptop.

Contacts. I use Apple’s address book program synced to other devices through iCloud for keeping all my contact information. I have photos for most of the people in the list so I see a picture of the person calling, emailing, or messaging me on all my devices.

Programming Apps

Skim. This is a nice PDF viewing program which I use to read documentation files. It has some useful features but the main reason I use it as an alternative to Apple’s Preview program is just to keep the documentation in a separate place from all the other PDFs I work with.

Script Editor. I use AppleScript (Apple’s scripting language) quite a lot of small tasks on my computer (connecting to servers, launching apps, etc) as well as for more sophisticated applications I have created to automate processes on servers.

XCode. This is Apple’s program development environment. I’m not doing any “real” programming at the moment but I have used this in the past, and it has useful utility tools as well.

FileMaker Pro 11. I have to maintain this older version of FileMaker to open older databases I have created and not moved to the newer version yet.

FileMaker Pro 14. If I am creating a serious database I prefer the MySQL/PHP/Apache environment but I quite like FileMaker for creating simpler desktop databases.

BBEdit. This is my main text editor for programming. It has excellent syntax colouring, keyword autocomplete, multiple file handling, and search and replace facilities. I also use the GREP system in this program to do complicated text processing.

Safari. Apple’s web browser is the one I use for testing and debugging my web sites and apps. It has good analysis tools and follows standards well so it is well suited to this.

Terminal. My favourite app! The command line is the “killer app” for the Mac. I love the Mac’s graphical user interface but I also like getting behind the scenes and using all the power of Unix, including Apache, MySQL, PHP, and shell scripts.

Internet Apps

NetNewsWire. This is an RSS viewer. I don’t tend to use RSS feeds as a source of information much, but I use this to check that the feeds I create for my blog, etc all work OK.

Chrome. I use Google’s browser for most of my web browsing. I like it because it is fast and reliable and handles lots of tabs open simultaneously (I just checked and I currently have 33 tabs).

Messages. This is Apple’s messaging app which syncs with my iPhone and iPad so I can send and receive text messages from my computer (also phone calls and iMessages).

Mail. Apple’s Mail program has a few faults but overall it is very clean and fast. I check 8 email accounts which I use for different reasons here: my main Apple account on iCloud, my work Exchange account, and 6 GMail accounts I use for special purposes. I do have a few sync problems with some of my Google accounts but just quitting Mail and restarting it (a few seconds) usually clears them.

Skype. I don’t use Skype much but occasionally people want to communicate with me this way so I keep it ready. BTW, I don’t count this as a real Microsoft program (see below).

Media Apps

iTunes. I think we all admit that iTunes has its faults but once you get over the confusing user interface it can do a lot and there really isn’t a realistic alternative for managing iPhones, etc.

Photos. Apple’s photo storage app is simple but fast, reliable and efficient. I just use it to store and display photos because I do my photo processing in more powerful apps before adding the photo to my library. Photos also syncs my photos between my computer, iPad, and iPhone through iCloud.

General Purpose Apps

Dictionary. Apple’s dictionary program looks up multiple dictionaries as well as Wikipedia. I have over 30 dictionaries installed but usually only have about 6 active. It also integrates automatically with most programs to allow word lookup from anywhere.

TextWrangler. This is a free, slightly scaled down version of the BBEdit text editor I mentioned above. I use it to open general text files separately from my programming files.

Preview. Apple’s PDF app is surprisingly capable and I use it instead of Adobe’s clunky Adobe Reader and Acrobat. It does almost everything most users need and is really reliable and easy to use.

Pixelmator. I am a big photography fan do I need a good photo editing program. I have used Photoshop since the first version was released, but I now find Adobe apps clumsy and slow, and I don’t like their licensing. So I use Pixelmator instead. It does most of what Photoshop can do, but because it is designed specifically for the Mac it is much nicer to use.

Pages. I use Apple’s Pages for word processing. It is so nice to use a word processor which works reliably, and quickly, and fits in with the rest of the system. I would never go back to Microsoft Word which I believe is probably the single worst program ever written (because of the frustration it causes for so many users).

Numbers. Of all the Microsoft programs I have used Excel is probably the one I find most useful. But, while it is quite powerful, it is still horrible from a user interface perspective so I usually use Apple’s Numbers app instead.

Keynote. Using Apple’s Keynote instead of PowerPoint is such a luxury. I know it will work reliably, that movies will play, and that graphics will always display. Plus it has a much nicer user interface and works better with the rest of the system.

So that’s it. Notice that I am Microsoft free (apart from Skype) and Adobe free. I do still have Office and Creative Suite installed but I almost never use them (really only to help other people who use them and have problems). This is partly political (I don’t like big corporations) and partly practical (I like elegant, well designed software). And yes, I do know that Apple is a big (evil?) corporation but I can’t really work in IT without teaming up with one corporation (Microsoft, Adobe, Apple, Google, Oracle, etc) so I guess at least Apple is the best choice out of all of them.

I Don’t Like It

March 4, 2016 Leave a comment

I’ve been thinking about some of the conclusions I have reached after being an “IT expert” for many years. I use a lot of different computer, smartphone, tablet, and other products and I have a good sense of what is good, what is not so good, and what is just plain horrible. The odd thing is that it is often the most widely-used products from big companies which are the worst. I should say this applies mainly to software rather than hardware.

For example, after many years I no longer use any Microsoft or Adobe products because they are just so, well… not necessarily bad, but just totally average, uninspiring, and unintuitive. And the worst thing is that this unfortunate situation is even creeping into the one company I have higher expectations of: Apple.

I don’t know how many times I have ranted about the inadequacies of Microsoft Word. I work almost entirely with Macs but on the occasions when I do Windows support I have issues there as well. It’s not that Word lacks capabilities – it can do almost anything – it’s more the way it does it. It’s unreliable, unpredictable, unintuitive, and uninspiring.

When I use other word processors I know that I can create a document hundreds of pages long with lots of graphics and it will still print (or more likely convert to PDF) accurately. I know I will be able to work with the document without it becoming slow even on a high performance computer. And I know it won’t become corrupted in some way. But not with Word. I can almost guarantee something will go wrong with a project of any significant degree of complexity.

But I shouldn’t just pick on Microsoft. What about the second biggest software company, Adobe? Well I have always loved Photoshop, and I still use it occasionally. But Adobe products suffer from poor interface design, slow performance, crazy licensing schemes, and other problems which really shouldn’t exist.

And just to show that I really am an “equal opportunity” critic of different products and companies, what about Apple? Well in general I like Apple programs because even though they do a smaller range of tasks, they do them really well. Apple’s word processor, Pages, for example never fails me. It doesn’t do quite as much as Word (although it does everything even a power user like me needs) but I know it will do everthing I want it to reliably.

But Apple have a few notable failures. Let’s get the “elephant in the room” out of the way first: iTunes. Everyone seems to hate iTunes – especially Windows users – and I can see why. It is probably the program I have most problems with (remember I don’t use Microsoft software). But it’s not just poor reliability; it’s an inconsistent, illogical, confused user interface which is possibly even worse.

Apple have made a few other mistakes over the years too, both on the Mac and on “iDevices” (iPod, iPad, iPhone, Apple Watch). For example, the whole Lion operating system was a backward step in many ways, especially in terms of functionality of the built-in apps.

No one thinks that creating modern systems or apps is easy, because there are so many variables which need to be taken into account, especially in the environment the program will be used in and how the user will use it. But the leaders in this area (Microsoft, Adobe, Apple) seem to be the ones doing the worst job in many cases. Why is that, especially considering the huge resources they have? Why can small companies or individuals often make better products?

No doubt it is partly because of the corporate culture where policies and rules have more influence than good design and engineering decisions. Partly it is because of the need to support previous code bases, file formats, and interface designs. And partly it is due to the simple law of diminishing returns. As more people interact in a project their contribution tends to be less about the core project and more about maintaining the complex set of interactions with other participants. So I’m sure that there is a point where having more people makes things worse rather than better.

When I look at the programs I actually use they can be broken into three categories: those which Apple supplies and are either well designed (Pages, Preview, Safari) or just the only real practical option (iTunes); those which I choose to use because they just work really well (TextWrangler, BBEdit, Pixelmator, Skim); and awesome, mostly non-commercial technical and programming tools (Apache, MySQL, PHP).

I think everyone wins when smaller, innovative programmers can challenge the big guys. Unfortunately just for compatibility with other users and to fulfill poorly considered policies I do have to use inferior software like Microsoft Word occasionally. But I don’t like it.

Bad Design

February 11, 2016 Leave a comment

If there’s one thing that bugs me it’s bad design. Actually, there isn’t just one thing that bugs me, and bad design might not even be at the top of the heap if there was, but just for the purposes of this blog post let’s just assume that it is my number one source of annoyance.

As anyone who follows this blog has probably realised by now, I work with computers. I am a generalist but I work mainly with Macs, I do some web site and web database creation, some miscellaneous programming, some general consulting, hardware repairs and installation, and anything else required.

I’m not an expert on design and have no qualifications in the subject, but it is an interest I have and I have done some reading in the area. When I create programs, databases, and web sites user interface design is one of my primary concerns. Of course, speed, reliability, and functionality are also important but I give all 4 of those factors equal weight, something which many other people don’t seem to do.

At this point I should say what I mean by “design” in this case. I mean not just how the program, web site, or product looks, but how its functionality is structured: whether the interactive elements are consistent and intuitive, whether the response to the user makes sense, and whether the item in question works harmoniously both internally and in the larger environment (for example within the operating system or between itself and related items).

As I said, I work mainly with Macs (and other Apple products) and to a large extent that is because of Apple’s design standards, but even Apple is far from perfect. But at least they are ahead of most other companies so I choose them more as the best of a series of bad options rather than a good one in any absolute sense.

To be fair, these things aren’t easy, and what makes sense as a design element to a programmer might not make sense to users. And often people aren’t even aware that they are the victims of bad design. They just know that they feel lost, or frustrated, or uncomfortable and might not be sure why. There is also the point that in many cases there isn’t just one big problem which is obvious.

Instead of one big problem there might be a series of poor features which leads to the “death by a thousand cuts”. The user might not notice each one but in the end it is just as fatal! This is how I feel about Windows in particular (and to a somewhat lesser extent, other Microsoft products).

Let me give an example of how user interface design can make life easier in the real world. How many people walk up to a door which they should push and pull instead? I do that, even when there is a sign which says “push” (I’m a real genius). But there are other doors I just walk up to and push without thinking. Why? Because the push doors which work have a push plate instead of a handle. Why have a handle if you can’t pull the door?

So let’s look at this in the software world. I don’t want to pick on Microsoft any more because they are such an easy target, so let me choose one of Apple’s more heinous transgressions instead. In iOS Apple have thrown out the traditional graphical buttons and provided coloured (often red) text for active elements instead. That’s not too bad because we are used to something similar with active text on web sites (like links). But when titles and other text which doesn’t do anything are the same colour and sometimes active text isn’t coloured it just turns into a “tap it and see” situation! Why do this when it’s so easy to provide a distinctive design element? Maybe visual attractiveness here overcomes the bigger design picture.

But that is a specific example of a problem and because it is so well defined it is quite easy to fix. In fact there is a “button shapes” option in the accessibility section of iOS settings which restores a sort of button-like appearance to active text.

The bigger problem is the software – often expensive corporate systems – which are just horrible to use. It seems that the people who wrote this software either have never used it (so don’t realise how bad it is), or don’t listen to user feedback, or are forced into designing a specific way due to management restraints, or (most likely) all of the above.

There’s no easy fix for this because the problems go beyond mere user interface design and encompass the whole model the systems are built around.

In fact there does seem to be almost an inverse relationship between the size of the team working on a software project and the usability and general quality of the finished product. That’s probably a bit too simplistic because many creations of a single individual are actually pretty terrible, and big projects are beyond what a single person can do so a real comparison can’t be made. But I do think that having too big a team – and especially too many non-technical people – is the biggest cause of bad products.

Whatever the cause is bad design is rife in modern software. Most software exists to allow people to interact with information. I think that “people” aspect deserves more attention. It’s time for human interface design to be given a higher priority.

IT Support 101

July 12, 2015 Leave a comment

As many of the followers of this blog will know, I do IT support and programming for a New Zealand university. After just spending 4 days away from “home base ” doing some quite intense and varied work I thought I might list a few hints for aspiring IT support people and anyone else who might have a passing interest. I have worked in IT since the days of the Apple II and have learned a few things in that time!

OK, here’s some of my best hints…

Hint 1: passwords.

It has been shown to be psychologically impossible for users to remember their passwords, and in the unlikely event that they do remember a password it will be even worse because it will be the wrong one, they will enter 10 times in a row, and they will lock themselves out of their own accounts.

Many users also “don’t have a password” for their email and other services. When you hear this you know you are in trouble because, of course, they do have a password which is provided automatically by the software. Generally on a Mac this can be retrieved from the system keychain – if you can get the master password for that!

Next, if a user has a password and they can remember it then it will most likely be something incredibly secure like “password” or “123” and the clue for these will naturally be “password” or “123”. Also, when you visit the same person several years later it will still be the same.

My solution to this is to give the user a reasonably secure password and record it somewhere safe for them (only with their permission, of course). I would recommend an encrypted document (with a really secure master password) and this will be stored on your hard disk which is also automatically encrypted, right? Bonus hint: get a Mac and use Apple’s built-in system, FileVault 2, which is secure enough for most situations.

Hint 2: help.

It is extremely rare to find a help system in any software which is particularly helpful. In fact I would say that all built-in help systems are basically useless. Luckily there is an alternative: our old friend Google! Yes, google the question or problem (google is now a valid verb meaning to search the web using Google) and you will generally get a much better answer much more quickly than you can get from any help system.

You do have to be aware of one effect though. That is that every new program, computer, or anything else will have many people complaining about its basic deficiencies whether these issues really exist or not. So don’t take too much notice of general comments that a certain system simply doesn’t work, especially when there is a trendy meme on that topic.

Sometimes the problem with googling (a noun derived from the verb google) is finding an answer which is specific enough. I like to include error numbers or unusual words which are more likely to give more specific information. Don’t google “Microsoft Word crash” because you’ll get millions of answers (that particular query might even overload Google!). Try “word mac hangs at launch” or something like that. Even better, use the Console app (on Mac) to check error logs and find more specific error information.

Hint 3: generic solutions.

Have you ever contacted a helpdesk and been told to reset your modem, restart your computer, rebuild a database, re-install your software, or just to “try it again?” Of course you have! These are what I call “generic solutions” and they are usually (but not always) given when the person has no idea what is going on.

That’s not to say that they won’t work or that you shouldn’t use them, but by using them you do lose something. Specifically you lose the chance to really know what went wrong, because the information needed to diagnose the source of the problem might be lost after a reboot, etc.

So I recommend trying to actually solve the issue unless you specifically know of a problem which cannot be fixed realistically any other way. In some cases I use this solution myself, usually when I want a particularly nasty problem to just go away. For example Microsoft Outlook is a horrendous mess which often corrupts its master database. I’ve never figured out why and would prefer it if people just didn’t use the program, but if they do use it and when (not if) the database becomes corrupted a rebuild is an easy solution.

Hint 4: burning bridges.

Some functions we perform on computers cannot be undone, or if they can be it might involve a huge effort. For example, deleting a settings file, because you think it is corrupt, might fix a problem. But on the other hand it might not fix it, and it might create more problems because valuable settings are lost.

So just move it to a new location or rename it instead. Remember that if you just move it some programs will continue to use it, even in the new location, even if that location is the trash! Relaunching the program, including any background processes, will usually persuade it to relinquish control of the file. And yes, reboot if you must!

If the process above doesn’t fix the problem you can just reverse the steps to get back to where you were. Don’t forget that any file re-created when the app launches will be in use and won’t be able to be replaced unless you quit the app first.

Hint 5: everyone is different.

Every user, every job, every computer, and every situation is different. Don’t get too hung up on policies, rules and regulations. These can be useful as general guidelines but I prefer to evaluate every case on its own merits and come up with an optimal solution for the user. Of course, many bureaucrats don’t like this but I always feel I am there for the users, not the bureaucrats.

Naturally this idea is a bit contentious so use it sensibly. If there are corporate requirements which aren’t too onerous it makes sense to follow them rather than risk problems later. Choose which battles are worth fighting!

Hint 6: don’t panic, and be nice.

This is the ultimate hint really and one that can be very difficult to always follow. I do have to say that on occasions I get frustrated with poor infrastructure, substandard programs some people are forced to use, and outdated hardware which really should be replaced, and might launch into a rant regarding the unfairness of it all.

I generally regret these and a simple statement like: “Unfortunately our network is very unreliable so we can’t give a perfect solution to this problem”, or “Yes, Microsoft PowerPoint often does that and I’m sorry but it can’t be fixed by anyone except Microsoft” is more effective anyway.

Also, don’t try to force people into working in a way which doesn’t suit them. When I was a beginner computer support person I tried to persuade people to adopt a zero desktop clutter policy, or to use PDFs instead of printing, but I now realize that is the wrong approach.

Many people just like throwing junk on their desktop even though I believe it is better to reserve it for stuff which is currently being used or awaiting being filed in a permanent location. By the way, the ability to find files amongst the clutter by just typing the first few letters of their name is a revelation to some users!

And most people still really like paper and I can see why because it has a lot of benefits, so let them use paper if they must. Maybe creating a preset to print double-sided might be a more valuable contribution to saving the trees than trying to eliminate paper completely.

Sometimes people have such hideous computer habits that it is worth trying to correct them. For example I once had a user who stored her documents in the trash because then they “wouldn’t use space on her disk”! That was an accident waiting to happen. And if people store so many items on their desktop that they overflow and pile up on top of each other at the top-right of the screen it is worth encouraging them to use an alternative strategy.

A secret stealth weapon I often use is to be nice. Many people get stressed when their computer is misbehaving and they might not treat you as well as they should. But being nice back to them – even if they are being a real ass – is something they might not expect and often works really well.

I once had a senior manager call me and rant about something I had done and when he threatened to never let me work in his department again I said “That’s unfortunate because apart from this I thought we had a really good working relationship”. I then went on to explain why I had done what I had done and he agreed that he had over-reacted. In the end he apologized to me!

So those are my IT support 101 hints. I hope you find them useful. Now I just need to take my own advice and eliminate those rants!

Do We Need Innovation?

December 8, 2013 3 comments

What’s the big deal about innovation? I often hear people criticising technology companies, especially Apple, because they “don’t innovate any more”. So let’s have a look at this claim and see if it stands up to any scrutiny.

First, what is innovation? It’s about creating something new which changes the existing way things are done. The question naturally becomes: how big a change has to be made before it is significant enough to be called an innovation? The answer to that is clearly subjective.

But I think there is little doubt that Apple has innovated in the past at least. First there was the Apple II, then the Mac, then the iPod, and the iPhone, and finally the iPad. All of these devices made big changes to the way certain things were done.

That is 5 major innovations, and even that ignores services like Apple’s computer stores and the Apple music and app stores which were innovative in their own right. What other companies have done anything similar? Well Google gave us one big innovation: search, Amazon gave us one: the on-line book store, and Microsoft gave us… nothing?

So some of the big computer companies are innovative but clearly, looking at Microsoft as an example, innovation isn’t necessary for success. And so as not to just pick on Microsoft I would say that Samsung is another example. It produces good quality products at a good price but the company obviously can’t distinguish between a gimmick and a real innovation.

Innovation is important because (for example) without it I wouldn’t be typing this entry on an iPad. Up until the time that Apple showed everyone else how to do it tablets were practically unusable. The iPad wasn’t the first tablet but it was innovative because it was the first usable tablet which resulted in it making a big difference to the way people work (and play). And the same applies to the iPhone, iPod, Mac, and Apple II. None of these were the first of their kind but they were the first which were usable, and that’s what made the difference.

So if Apple stopped innovating, as some people think they will after the loss of Steve Jobs, what will they do instead? Samsung do well out of producing good products at a reasonable price. Microsoft do well out of making standard products which are familiar and “good enough”. And other companies (I can’t think of an example right now) do well out of producing extremely high quality products. Can Apple do any of these instead?

Well maybe, but probably not. Apple have never aimed at value because it has always been understood that you pay a premium for their stuff. To some extent they control standards but not in the same way as Microsoft do so that doesn’t seem like a good option. They do emphasise quality but even that is sometimes lacking. Apple Maps, Siri, cloud services, and several other products haven’t been as good as we might expect.

So it looks like innovation is important but we shouldn’t expect it to happen all the time. After all, if Apple innovated every year it would become rather mundane and then could it still really be called innovation? Plus there is the point that there are only a certain number of product categories that need the “Apple treatment” and maybe there just aren’t any more right now… Except maybe for wearable tech. I’m still waiting for that Apple watch!

A Dinosaur Theme Park

November 21, 2013 Leave a comment

As you, my valued readers, probably know, I work as an IT consultant/programmer, so I often have to solve problems and fix issues related to the programs my clients use. There are various techniques I use to solve problems: just use my experience from similar problems in the past; apply updates, re-install, delete preference files and other more generic solutions; and maybe eventually contact the developer for help.

It’s the last process I want to talk about here. When contacting a company or individual for help on a problem with software I get a wide variety of different responses. Sometimes the experience is very positive and the problem is quickly solved, but other times the opposite is true and I end up in a frustrating dead end or maze of conflicting actions.

The interesting thing is that it is usually the smaller companies and individual programmers who provide the best service and the big corporations which give either no help at all or such poor help that you are better off not even attempting to access it.

Recently I discovered that an astronomy program I bought a few years ago now, called “Starry Night” had stopped downloading comet orbit updates and other information and that the updaters on-line didn’t work. This program wasn’t really over-priced but it wasn’t cheap either so I thought “OK, let’s see what the support is like” half expecting to be told that the version I had was obsolete and I would need to buy a new one.

So I left a request on the on-line help system and within a few hours had a reply requesting extra information which I supplied and a few minutes later was downloading a new version which worked perfectly. So that was a positive experience, although I do think that when the old version stopped working I should have received an automated email telling me about the new version with a download link.

I have had similar fast and useful exchanges with other smaller developers too. I use a backup and synchronisation program called “ChronoSync” and have emailed their support staff on several occasions and got helpful responses, including having suggestions of new features treated seriously (although not actually implemented yet!)

But what about some of the bigger, more prominent companies? Yes, that is quite a different story. Try getting meaningful support from Adobe, or Microsoft, or Hewlett Packard, or even Apple and you will probably be disappointed. Occasionally I get reasonable results from them, but usually it takes a lot longer and is far less positive overall than with the smaller companies.

And I think I know why.

It’s because of their “corporate mindset”. This affliction is common in large organisations and it always involves having overly complicated procedures, precisely formulated responses, and a low level of personal responsibility and freedom to offer creative solutions.

So after contacting a large organisation you will often be processed by an automated system, followed by a helpdesk, followed by an “expert” chosen from a large group. If you do talk to a real person it wil often be obvious that they are following a script and might not even have ever used the product. And even if you tell them what they need to do to fix the problem they won’t do it unless it’s on their list of pre-defined “solutions”.

I fully understand that a large company processing thousands of requests a day can’t use the same system as a smaller one with much smaller load can but I can’t accept that they can’t create something better than what we usually get.

Over they years I have rejected the products of one big company after another. First it was Microsoft, then HP, and most recently it was Adobe. I now use alternatives from smaller companies (or Apple which is the only big organisation I still like, although it certainly has its problems). I have never regretted doing this. Not only do I get better, cheaper products with great support, but I am also supporting smaller, more innovative companies instead of the big dinosaurs.

That reminds me of a joke: What’s the difference between IBM and Jurassic Park? Answer: One’s a theme park full of old dinosaurs and the other’s a movie! Yeah, that could apply to Microsoft or Adobe sometimes too!