Software Mistakes and Mistakes About Software

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By Mark Bernstein

A lot conventional wisdom about software is mistaken.  It's probably a mistake to try to tackle these misconceptions in too much detail in a blog post, but my time here is limited and perhaps a short catalog of common mistakes might help some of you think more critically about the programs you use every day.

Results are what matter
We all know that small computers have transformed the workplace. The world of The Apartment and Mad Men has vanished. Companies know that they wouldn't be more profitable if they discarded their PCs and hired lots of secretaries and typists. Yet the productivity gains from using computers have been remarkably hard to identify. 

It turns out that lot of the work we do with business computers involves dressing up our ideas to impress managers and clients. Where a typed page was once sufficient, we now dispatch an elegantly typeset document and a deck of presentation slides. This might not help the company serve customers, but it helps individuals impress their managers.

Much of the real contribution that software makes to your thinking happens in the course of the work. What may matter most in the long run are the ideas you discover while preparing a management report or a client presentation. Process matters.

Software should be polished
We spend too much time perfecting the way our programs look, just as in the previous century we spent far too much time perfecting our books. We are accustomed to a very high standard of editing and typesetting in publishing, a standard that originally was possible only because a vast number of educated women were for the first time entering the work force and were, for a time, willing to accept very low wages. Today, we look for the same sort of surface polish in our software.

All this polish comes with substantial costs. Some costs are evident because they appear in the price. Others are hidden. How do you measure the cost of terrific software that never gets written, or that remains locked in a laboratory?

Software developers have long struggled to reduce the riskiness of development, its delays and failures, by working to build a software factory that would make software construction more systematic. This hasn't worked well. "We software creators woke up one day," I wrote in 2007, "to find ourselves living in the software factory. The floor is hard, from time to time it gets very cold at night, and they say the factory is going to close and move somewhere else. We are unhappy with our modern computing and alienated from our work, we experience constant, inexorable guilt."

We've been here before.  In 1853, John Ruskin inserted a long aside in The Stones Of Venice to advise to the Victorian consumer and art buyer. What sort of things should one buy?  Ruskin suggests the following:

1. Never encourage the manufacture of any article not absolutely necessary, in the production of which Invention has no share.

2. Never demand an exact finish for its own sake, but only for some practical or noble end.

3. Never encourage imitation or copying of any kind, except for the sake of preserving record of great works.

Brush marks are not signs of sloth, and pixel misalignments are not an indicator of moral laxity. The software creator should make intention clear, but excessive polish is slave's work unredeem'd.

Software should be friendly
The program is not your friend. It does not understand you, or care about you. 

Computers should be intuitive
We are often told that computers should be information appliances, that you don't need to know about anything under the hood. Many things we want to do, however, are far from simple; the real work of real people is surprisingly complex. Learning to use tools well sometimes takes times, but you are only a beginner once and you may use your tools every day.

Programs should never crash, hang, or do surprising things
Homer nods, and most of us aren't Homer. Human collaborators sometimes make mistakes, lose things, or drop them on the floor. With computers as well as people, take sensible precautions and hope for the best. 

On her first trip to New Mexico, Linda was astonished to find that National Park trails frequently ran close beside spectacular cliffs, with no guard rails in sight. Back east, you'd put up a guard rail and spoil the view -- or you might close the trail because it might be dangerous. If we do not trust users, we deprive people of abilities they need.

No one wants to read on screens
People still say this, even though we spend our days reading and writing on the screen. It is now clear that the future of serious reading and writing lies on screens and on the displays that will replace them.

Hypertext is distracting; the Internet is ruining kids today
Life is distracting. Ideas are complicated and densely interconnected.  There is too much to do and we have too little time. Kids know this, too, and make choices accordingly.

Computers don't wear out
Computers you depend on last three years, laptops a bit less. A three-year-old computer, even if in pristine condition, is sufficiently obsolete that replacing it is nearly mandatory.  If you don't use your computer much, or you want to use an old computer for an occasional chore, you can keep it for a few years more.

Web pages should (or can) say one thing, and should mean what they say
Dreams of the semantic Web often rest on the assumption that we can (and will) express the meaning of a Web page in a simple and concise format. Everything we know about writing, everything we know about meaning, suggests this is a fantasy.  

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In despair over their perception of the intellectual dishonesty of the Bush administration and the epistemic closure of the American Right, Jed Buchwald and Diane Greco Josefowicz  wrote The Zodiac of Paris. It's describes once-famous controversies in the early 19th century over some Egyptian inscription that suggested the world was older than Genesis allows. 

The book is, in a very real sense, about the lies Curveball told Colin Powell, but that meaning is not on the page.

Steve Jobs matters
The American business press is obsessed with CEOs.  If a stock increases, the firm's leaders are brilliant fellows. If shares plummet, the CEO must be a buffoon. Steve Jobs, once regarded as a fool, is now hailed as the one true software visionary, the indispensible force. 

Jobs is, in fact, a good software critic and an executive who is willing to trust his judgment and endure the consequences.

The customer, the usability lab, or the marketplace will tell you what is good; crowds are wise
From the user-generated content of Wikipedia to mass recommendation systems and user-written product reviews, my colleagues assume that crowds are wise and that, on average, sensible opinions prevail. That this is often true is fortunate, but crowds can be wildly wrong.. 

Almost all software designers believe that customers, clinical studies, or the marketplace will reveal what works and what doesn't, but everything we know about art (and software is an art form) argues this cannot be right. Best-seller lists sometimes contain good books, but they list bad books aplenty. Popular movies are not always great. 

We know that an intelligent critic can sometimes recognize a great work when she sees it. No individual's taste or judgment is infallible, but the marketplace is often wrong, too.

Mark Bernstein is chief scientist at Eastgate Systems, where he crafts software for new ways of reading and writing.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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