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Chris' Rant- by Chris Wenham


"Sex me, MTV" - Early MTV advertising slogan.

While an early experiment in cable TV programming was getting started, a young computer software industry was hatching a brilliant scheme to expand revenues and assure a long and profitable future for itself. It worked like this: you sell the same product back to the same customer over and over again. It's a little bit like the method described in a book by Douglas Adams, where a publishing company sells the same book to the same customer, only in a million alternate universes. But with software, it's all done by a crafty psychological trick: increase the version number. The response is Pavlovian.

MTV's early slogan worked on this principle: the words "Sex" and "Me" were known to be 'hot-button' words in people -- words that almost always got attention immediately. So, if you put them together and appended your company name with it, you'd have a really effective slogan, right? Yeah well, it was a good idea anyway and eventually fizzed out into whatever they have now. But its legacy is still with us, for more subtle words are used now, ones like "Free" and "Now". You've seen them plastered liberally over advertisements everywhere. In the software industry, these words are augmented with "Upgrade," but the message is just as potent.

The trouble is that the upgrade scheme has been woefully abused in the maturing years of software marketing to the point where it doesn't mean anything anymore. The average upgrade has new features -- enough new features to help you justify to yourself the cost of upgrading -- but it doesn't increase productivity anymore. The core purpose of most software has been finished to death. It works. It does as its told and it probably does it very well. Why should we need more?

Yet how many times have you caught yourself automatically equating higher version numbers with superiority? Conditioning.

Most of the real improved productivity is not coming out of upgrades, but out of 1.0 releases of radical and experimental new programs. Because by the v1.0 point the fundamental concept of the program is already in place, and what comes later should only need to be bug fixes. It's very rare that a subsequent release offers any real gain over the first version at all. It's just like the movies; the sequel is never as good as the original.

But at v1.0 the user interface isn't quite perfect yet, and it would be really nice if it had this extra widget, and then it would also be good if it could read a few extra file formats...

And now you have version 5.0, upgraded for $99. With that and a v1.0 release selling for maybe $199, you've just spent close to $600 on the same program. Buying it again and again and again, even though you already own it. And why? Because you're conditioned. You jerked when they pulled your string and you marched when they pressed your buttons.

Today it's hard to argue with someone who's reached a nirvana of commercial programming. Higher version? Well it must be superior! Conditioning. It might be plain to you that the old DOS Quicken works best for you, but your personal needs and opinion aren't a big enough sledgehammer to break through the mental block. Conditioning. It can't occur to them that humans are all different. Conditioning. We will all benefit equally and in the same way from The Upgrade. Conditioning.

This is all very nice for the software companies, of course, since they can now put whatever they please into the program, give it a new version number, and sell it all over again. This does not necessarily help you though, because you're not seeing the same increase in productivity that you did when you bought the first version.

It has led to the "80/20" rule in application bloat. 80 percent of all software owners use only 20 percent of the features that are in the package. But each time you upgrade, you're still paying for all of it.

To find solutions (and the first one I can think of is to turn off your television) we must analyze what is going into these upgrades. What can be separated from the product so you don't feel compelled to buy the same program twice?

The crushing majority are widgets. Widgets integrated into the program maybe not so much for the benefit of the widget itself but for the fact that it's integrated. Spelling and grammar checkers in word processors, transparent and animated GIF tools in graphics programs, they all used to be separate programs that worked so much better when made part of a larger application. They should have been integrated in the operating system, but thanks to impatience or lack of technology or both, they got hard-coded into the grand bloated app instead.

Bad idea.

The side effect of the widgets practice is that existing features don't get enough attention, so flaws don't get fixed even when the developer is aware of them.

For a moment we did have a technology, called OpenDoc, that would have helped. But OpenDoc was killed (murdered you might say) with the end result setting us back by three or four years. With OpenDoc, everything was broken up into interchangeable parts that were linked together and integrated by the operating system. If successful, it would have eliminated the upgrade cycle.

The next possibility is Java Beans, something you've probably heard me praise before if you read my columns. <g> It's like OpenDoc (and contains some cannibalized technology from it too) but is based on Java. Anything as large as a 3D picture rendering module or as small as a new kind of drop down list can be made into a Java Bean. And while you probably won't mess around replacing controls as trivial as buttons and lists, you will still have the power to add more important things -- like an interactive map that finds and adds addresses to your personal organizer, or a language translator for your browser that does a better job than AltaVista.

The Upgrade Reflex conditioning needs to be purged from our systems if we're to see software advance in the next ten or twenty years, because at the moment we're rewarding shovelware and useless features with more and more "upgrade dollars". This trend has got to stop. With the distribution methods described in last month's column, and the modular technology described in this one, it'll happen. Vote with your wallet.

But before you do that, put your wallet away and tell me what you think of this Rant in our Hypernews Forum.

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Chris Wenham is the Senior Editor of OS/2 e-Zine! -- a promotion from Assistant Editor which means his parking spot will now be wide enough to keep his bicycle and a trailer.


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