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Software Problems

Entry 1992, on 2019-07-26 at 19:05:56 (Rating 2, Computers)

How can we fix some of the problems we have with technology today? Specifically, the subject for this blog post is how can the well known computer software and internet problems we have be fixed, or at least improved.

So to start with, let me list the issues as I see them. First, most software is unreliable, unintuitive, and overpriced. Why is this? Well, it depends on the exact circumstances, but maybe the most common reason is the commercial and management pressures applied to the software developers and teams. To be fair, there are undoubtedly some simply incompetent programmers as well, but I'm fairly confident that's a lesser problem and not the one I am going to concentrate on here.

I talked about this general issue in several past posts, especially in relation to New Zealand's school payroll system "Novopay" which is still problematic many years after its initial deployment. For older posts on this topic check out "The 'E' Word" from 2014-02-27, "Another IT Debacle" from 2013-06-27, "Corporate Newspeak" from 2013-03-21, "Doomed to Failure" from 2012-12-20, and "Talentless Too, No Pay" from 2012-11-24. Yeah, this is obviously a favourite topic of mine!

So its generally the corporate culture which is to blame for these disasters. In Novopay's case it was the idea that they could produce something more easily, and therefore make a much higher profit, by hacking a few extra layers on top of a hopelessly antiquated travesty, which might generously be described as an early payroll system. I'm fairly sure most competent programmers would have seen that was a bad idea, but they would have been overridden by the greedy and useless management.

Now, to be fair, I do have to admit that I am reading between the lines here, and basing this appraisal on the information which has been leaked, and my knowledge of how this process usually proceeds. But we are never going to hear the real story because it is just too embarrassing, so some degree of speculation is necessary.

There have been many other spectacular failures of software over the years, including a police records system here in New Zealand, the bad code causing the new Boeing 737 crashes, and today I heard that the Airbus A350 has to be rebooted every 149 hours or some of its systems will fail.

Boeing in particular should be utterly ashamed of themselves, because their terrible code reputedly was produced by cheap programmers from India. I'm not saying Indian people can't program - far from it - but those working in "sweat shops" designed to create the most code at the lowest price are unlikely to be the most talented people in that nation.

So, assuming this rumour is true, Boeing killed hundreds of people to save a bit of cash by outsourcing the programming to the cheapest bidder. Anyone could see that was a bad idea. Or should I say, anyone except the managers at Boeing. As I have said before: management is the most despicable, revolting profession on the planet. If they all dropped dead on the spot tomorrow the only disadvantage to society would be effort involved in ridding the world of their massed bodies! Note that this is a rhetorical point, and not a genuine wish for the death of anybody!

There are lesser problems too, but ones which affect a larger number of people. Almost all of the popular software and services we use today could use a lot of improvement. For example, Facebook is an abomination of crappy user interface design, slow and unreliable code, and utterly unfair policies and standards. And then there's my other favourite target: Microsoft Word. To call this mangled together abomination of poorly thought out functions a program is really, really generous. I admit, you can do most things with it, but only if you are prepared to use the most arcane user interface features, work around the arbitrary limitations, and find needlessly complex ways to do things which should be easy.

At this point you might be wondering why I am picking on what are by far the most widely used social network and word processor in the world. Well popularity does not imply quality. In fact the opposite is probably true and I think I know why. As a product becomes more popular a bigger and bigger bureaucracy grows up around its maintenance and development, this gets more managers involved in the process and... well, you know my opinion of managers!

So, what's the answer? Well, it's really simple actually. What we need is some open, public standards for information exchange in all the major categories we use. We could have one for word processing data, for example, and for exchanging posting and messaging data on the internet. Everyone would need to follow these standards, so if people didn't like Facebook from a technical or political perspective (for example, because of privacy) they could just use an alternative program which would have equal access to the underlying data.

So the files that Word created would need to comply with the standards, meaning that another software developer could access those files on an equal level to Microsoft. Plus, the underlying format could be made far more elegant than the hacked together travesty we currently have, which should increase speed and reliability. At the moment it is possible to read a Word file in a different program, but it rarely works perfectly because Microsoft has ultimate control over the file format, and has an unfair advantage.

And that would also mean that anyone could write a Facebook app which accessed the Facebook data stream in a far better form than Facebook currently does. And let's do that with Twitter too, because that is hopelessly obscure and difficult to use. Again, there are apps which do this already, but because Facebook and Twitter control the underlying form of the data they have an unfair advantage.

This might not even be disadvantageous to the Microsofts and Facebooks of the world either. If the protocols and software code were open source then any improvements would be available free to the whole community, including the big companies. And don't tell me they don't want that because a massive number of the big companies' existing systems use open source software, such as Linux, Apache, and MySQL.

It could be a win for everyone, especially the users - that's you! But will it happen? Well, probably not, because the people that make the decisions - those managers again (boo!) - rarely make innovative decisions of this type, no matter how obvious and advantageous they might be.

So I guess we are stuck with using sub-standard software. I can avoid some of it (I never use Word, for example) but some I sort of have to use, such as Facebook and Twitter, because that's where all my social media friends (and enemies) are. At this point, I'm still wondering whether I should avoid flying on an A350 or Boeing 737 MAX 8!

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