How can software get so bad?

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While there have been a lot of layoffs in the software industry of late, there appears to still be a huge number of people developing PC software. I am continually amazed to read of teams of thousands of highly qualified programmers working for Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, et al. Why then is the quality of the software for the PC market so poor?

In contrast Linux was written by one man. However this in itself is misleading since while Thorvalds did write the core operating system, thousands of open source enthusiasts have added refinements and drivers to the final product. This then is probably the answer, only a few people should be involved in the core products, many more are needed to add details. This then becomes a serious man management problem, which is equally clearly not being solved. So many of these young geniuses are hoping to invent the next "killer" application, while in practice they are being used as mundane programmers. There are many people who could do this work well and enjoy doing it, but they are not the ones employed. As a result the job satisfaction must be very, very low.
One of the more amusing asides to this sorry tale is the title that Gates has chosen for himself, "Chief Software Architect". Who would want to admit to being the designer of a product that creates so much antagonism? "I am the man who invents software that crashes all the time and causes you so much frustration". In fact if it makes you so wealthy, most people would put up with the insults!
But since it is the beginning of 2003 I am taking the liberty to talk about my own personal PC. I don't have any business applications, but I am sure that my experiences with my applications are equally relevant to most other applications. I use Word, which I think must be the ultimate example of just how little can be achieved with so much technology. Like many programs it is the user interface that is so aggravating. The GUI interface pioneered by Xerox, was intended to make the man-machine interface intuitive. Basically it achieves this objective until we let all those programmers loose. Two things stand out, first real users seem to be ignored and second each new release is worse then before. It is fairly obvious that in order to get something out of the army of over qualified programmers, they are allowed to influence the design of the user interface. The PC software is bad, but that is nothing compared to the Internet. I would claim in my experience that as many as 90% of sites I visit are difficult to use. Worse still, a good 30% are so bad that they put me off ever using them and the company is actually losing business by virtue of a badly implemented Web site!
I use my PC to work with photographs. When I first had a PC it came with a digital camera to which configuration I added a HP slide and negative scanner. The machine came with PhotoWise and Adobe PhotoDeluxe 1.0, both excellent products. HP provided another good product, PhotoSmart. But when I replaced the machine with a much bigger one and replaced the dreadful Windows 98 with the vastly superior XP, it all went downhill. I was used to Adobe Photoshop in work, so I leapt on Photoshop Elements, only to be disappointed. It is an excellent product, but instead of a new user interface designed for the photographer, it is simply a cut down version of the original. PhotoDeluxe was much worse, Version 2 and the 3 got progressively worse and I couldn't get a copy of the superior version1 any longer. Why was it worse? Because they had to put some "improvements" in the user interface and to employ those whiz kid programmers. PhotoSmart didn't work under XP, and while HP provided a free download of a program of their own, it has a poor user interface, obviously never worked out with a user. The good news however is that after tracing PhotoWise to its current owner, Jasc, I have now got for $27 the superb AfterShot, the only example I have found of a product which is better than the original. For the record Soundprobe 2 is a well designed sound editor. If only we could get a few more designers and a few less programmers!

Martin Healey, pioneer development Intel-based computers en c/s-architecture. Director of a number of IT specialist companies and an Emeritus Professor of the University of Wales.


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article 2003-02-07T00:00:00.000Z Martin Healey
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