Archive for the 'simplicity' Category

Nobody wants to use…

Everyone wants to have everything. Bertil Muth has a great blog on software invisibility and use, where he asserts “Nobody wants to use software“.

Bertil makes a good case for AI driven software, that senses or learns why it exists, and just does what it should. Of course building such software is hard, very hard. It’s a good read though with some thought provoking points.

In the article when discussing Amazon he made a claim it was worth clarifying. It’s about the “infamous” 1-click patent. My comment is here.

“Then they [Amazon]pioneered 1-Click payment”
Actually they didn’t, they popularized a prior method, which after re-examination by the patent office was restricted to the use online, only in shopping carts.

The idea of a single click payment or financial transaction had been implemented many times before, however, prior to 1982 software patents were extremely hard to get for individual functions of so-called unique concepts, and were reserved for much broader, unique “inventions”.

In 1984, I was one of many working on Chemical Banks Pronto Home Banking System. For transfers between accounts within the bank, we initiated a 1-click on the UI for the PC Junior version of Pronto.

As far as I’m aware, nothing from Pronto was patented due to the high cost at the time. It wasn’t until the late 1980’s software patents started to be filed for individual methods, by the mid-90’s software patents became commonplace, and their use both defensive and offensive, sadly became commonplace too.

Overall though, it’s an excellent post which resonates with many of the themes of simplicity and usability I’ve argued here and elsewhere over the years.

Woe are apps

As a follow-on to my recent app post, a couple of interesting udates. First up, marketplace.org ran an interesting piece on apps on June 9th. Sabri Ben-Achour covered the Apple iTunes announcement by saying:

  • It’s hard for app developers to get noticed(thats a “no shit sherlock” moment)
  • It’s hard to make money (thats NSS #2)
  • There are 1.6 million apps on the Apple store, the search function isn’t that great
  • There have been 75 billion app downloads, but the average user downloads zero apps per month.

Apples answer? Paid promotion within the iTunes store. Of course if apps didn’t exist and companies and developers were using the power of mobile through web, css etc. their sites would be found in context of content and SEO. They could focus their efforts in a single way to promote their content and the web UI to access it.

Also new, to me, I went to use Skype to contact one of my kids in Europe the other day and was surprised, and more than a little disappointed to find the Skype app was no longer working and no longer available. It’s not clear if this was a business decision, or a technology one. The app was the only one I ever used on the Samsung SmartTV that used the camera. Yeah, I know I should have taped over the camera.

That’s the problem with apps, you wait for ages for a platform that makes sense, and then two or more come along at the same time. You better hope you pick the right one. There are some 137 pages on a single thread on the Skype Community forums debating if either Skype or Samsung was the wrong platform.

Apps

The app hell of the future

Just over 5-years ago, in April 2011, I wrote this post after having a fairly interesting exchange with my then boss, Michael Dell, and George Conoly, co-founder and CEO of Forrester Research. I’m guessing in the long term, the disagreement, and semi-public dissension shut some doors in front of me.

Fast forward 5-years, and we are getting the equivalent of a do-over as the Internet of Things and “bots” become the next big thing. This arrived in my email the other day:

This year, MobileBeat is diving deep into the new paradigm that’s rocking the mobile world. It’s the big shift away from our love affair with apps to AI, messaging, and bots – and is poised to transform the mobile ecosystem.

Yes, it’s the emperor’s new clothes of software over again. Marketing lead software always does this, over imagines what’s possible, under estimates the issues with building in and then the fast fail product methodology kicks-in. So, bots will be the next bloatware, becoming a security attack front. Too much code, forced-fit into micro-controllers. The ecosystem driven solely by the need to make money. Instead of tiny pieces of firmware that have a single job, wax-on, wax-off, they will become dumping ground for lots of short-term fixes, that never go away.

Screenshot_20160524-113359Meanwhile, the app hell of today continues. My phone apps update all the time, mostly with no noticeable new function; I’m required to register with loads of different “app stores” each one a walled garden with few published rules, no oversight, and little transparency. The only real source of trusted apps is github and the like where you can at least scan the source code.IMG_20160504_074211

IMG_20160504_081201When these apps update, it doesn’t always go well. See this picture of my Garmin Fenix 3, a classic walled garden, my phone starts to update at 8:10 a.m., and when it’s done, my watch says it’s now 7:11 a.m.

IMG_20160111_074518Over on my Samsung Smart TV, I switch it from monitor to Smart TV mode and get this… it never ends. Nothing resolves it accept disconnecting the power supply. It recovered OK but this is hardly a good user experience.

Yeah, I have a lot of smart home stuff,  but little or none of it is immune to the app upgrade death spiral; each app upgrade taking the device nearer to obsolescence because there isn’t enough memory, storage or the processor isn’t fast enough to include the bloated functions marketing thinks it needs.

If the IoT and message bots are really the future, then software engineers need to stand up and be counted. Design small, tight reentrant code. Document the interfaces, publish the source and instead of continuously being pushed to deliver more and more function, push back, software has got to become engineering and not a form of story telling.

YesToUninstallAnUpdate[1]

Touch screen and the desktop

I just posted a response over on a CNET discussion topic. As often is the case, rather than write, review, edit and post; I banged away a response and submitted, as always I made a few typo’s, so here is a corrected version.

I’ve just retired from an senior engineering position at Dell, specializing in software and firmware but I also participated in a number of usability studies for hardware/software combinations. I was the originator of the NFC enabled server systems management concept. I’d offer a few thoughts to confirm what some others have said, but also a slightly different perspective.

1. yes reaching across a keyboard to a monitor mounted at the back of a desk is ergonomically unpleasant.

2. Touch is an interesting technology, but for fixed monitors and TV’s etc. it is less than optimal. There are numerous efforts underway to come up with a more responsive, natural way to control a UI. Think X/BOX or Nintendo, or the Samsung SmartTV gestures, voice ala Amazon echo etc.

3. That said, I for one would never go back to a non-touch laptop screen. I can lift my arm from the keyboard and prod the “submit post” button below much quicker that I can use the touchpad, or grab an extrnal mouse and click.

4. If you want a touch screen desktop I’d highly recommend getting an all-in-one with a touch screen and mounting it into a desk. I had one of the Dell XPS 27’s and had an IKEA draftmans desk. We cut a hole 99% the size of the screen; mounted the screen into the hole; secured it with picture wire in a # format across the back. I gave up using a physical keyboard and mouse, bought a Targus Stylus and went 100% touch. The advantage of the IKEA desk is that you can easily angle the surface to one that suits you. Also, it came with a medal lip which stopped things sliding off the edge; also it came with a built in glass area, which was great for to-do lists, notes etc.

One final note, on Touch screen PC’s. As with Windows 10, when switching over to touch screen you have to try to stop doing the way you did them with a mouse and keyboard. The Adobe PDF app for Windows 10, is much easier to use than the Adobe desktop app for Windows 10. Using a drawing program for line art, block diagrams etc. either with your finger, or with a stylus is a huge leap forward to messing about with Word and Powerpoint. In the case of slides, and powerpoint, it made me released me from decades of serial text mode slides.

So rather than ask why so few touch screens for desktop computers. Ask, what are top-5 applications I use, and how could touchscreen make them better, easier, or me more productive. If it’s email, calendar and web browsing, it probably won’t. Although even in those cases, zoom in and zoom out is an improvement.

REPLY-TO-ALL storms

One thing that I’ve come to loathe is a “reply-to-all” email storm. They happen on all sorts of email systems, are are often made worse by making the reply-to-all but the default, rather than an option. They are also compounded by distribution lists, especially in big organizations. We had the perfect-storm Friday afternoon, an errant email addressed to an-all-org distribution list.

Peoples inability to use the advanced features the tools they spend so much of their time using, and their willingness to compound the problem with banal, stupid, inconsiderate and just thoughtless responses, also sent reply-to-all, not only astounds me, it frustrates me.

Yes I’m sure you want to be removed from this email chain; yes I know you want people to stop using reply-to-all but sending the response reply-to-all just shows you’ve not thought it through, and don’t know how to use your tools. I understand the problem is compounded by mobile use, where you don’t have the same technology, and having your blackberry vibrate in your pocket 200x can be a little overkill.

educateIf you have Microsoft Outlook, and especially Outlook 2010. Then help is at hand. I keep a couple of Quicksteps for these occaisions, the first is called REPLYTOALL and the second is called EDUCATE. REPLYTOALL just replies to the sender pointing out how useless their reply-to-all was. The quickstep changes the subject, adds the text, signs the email, and sends it, finally it deletes the original message.

If they reply, and this is known since the subject is changed, then I use EDUCATE to reply. It sends the following reply, again changing the subject, adding the text, signing the email, sending it, and finally deleting their response.

You replied to an email chain by using reply to all… asking to be removed or similar… a completely pointless effort that just added to the problem.

Interestingly you simply don’t have to do that. You have three choices that don’t need a reply at all, let alone a reply to all.

  1. After you have read the first message where you decide you don’t need to read anymore, from the inbox view right click on that message and choose ignore
  2. Right click the message and select ALWAYS MOVE MESSAGES IN THIS CONVERSION and then select deleted items. Right click and select create rule(this is more complex than the two above but can achieve the same thing)
  3. What I set up sometime ago is a quickstep. It’s easy to do, its called REPLYTOALL. I select the messages and click the QUICKSTEP, it is set up to send the reply you got, but also deletes the original email, and I just got the chance to update it to change the Subject, as per this reply, to READ ME!And yes, just in case you wondered, yes this reply came from another QUICKSTEP.

Some of us actually think email is still a vehicle for communicating ideas, not just the quickest way to abdicate responsibility for doing anything.

 

QR Codes and PowerEdge 12g servers

One of the things that is great about the new 12g hardware is the innovative use of QR Codes for service and support. It’s one of those “aha” moments where something that seems so obvious just works. Congratulations to Kevin and the ID team that pulled this together. The youtube video explains it all. 

Why is complexity bad?

In an internal meeting here this morning, I had another “rant” about unnecessary complexity in a design. One of the guys in the meeting wrote down what I said, pretty much verbatim and sent it to me afterwards asking if he could use it as a quote. When I read it even I was surprised with the clarity.

“Complexity in computing systems is really a bad thing, it’s the result of too many bright people making misguided judgements about what customers want, and customers thinking that their need to control has to come from complexity. Complexity creates cost, bugs, inhibits design, makes testing overly expensive, hinders flexibility and more. Most IT companies design approach to complexity is to automate it, which in turn creates more complexity.”

Comments?


About & Contact

I'm Mark Cathcart, formally a Senior Distinguished Engineer, in Dells Software Group; before that Director of Systems Engineering in the Enterprise Solutions Group at Dell. Prior to that, I was IBM Distinguished Engineer and member of the IBM Academy of Technology. I'm an information technology optimist.


I was a member of the Linux Foundation Core Infrastructure Initiative Steering committee. Read more about it here.

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