Saturday, April 1, 2006

Softly, Softly

If builders built buildings the way programmers wrote programs, then the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization. ~One of Murphy's Laws of Technology
I've been a long time reader of Ed Foster's Gripe Line, back when it was a column in the then excellent InfoWorld, and subsequently when it became a blog (because InfoWorld decided to totally screw up a good publication by getting rid of most of their best writers). Mr. Foster's blog deals with the problems IT professionals and everyday users have dealing with technology vendors.
The other day, The Gripe Line questioned “Is Software Getting Worse?”, detailing a user's frustrations with an upgrade that was more of a downgrade. I wish I could think that sort of thing was a recent development, but it's not. Software companies seem to hit a peak of development on a product. At that point there seems to be nothing to do but stick on chrome-reverse ashtrays just to give you a reason to upgrade. In the process they either lose features, break features, lose backward compatibility, or all of the above. Sometimes, though, a product tries to take a quantum leap from where it was to someplace else. Generally, they fall short, and what's left is a miserable product. For example, let me tell you about Clarion.
Clarion is a name that's been applied to a number of products, but the one I'm thinking of was a killer database program which first came to my attention in the late 1980's. I began using version 2, which allowed you to create screamingly fast database applications. As well, you could use it to create front end applications to just about any of the major database formats (like dBase, for instance). It was very sweet.
The trouble came when users began to demand more graphical interfaces, with mouse capabilities. Yes, believe it or not, many old DOS programs did not use a mouse. They used something called keystrokes. It's amazing how we mouse around now in apps when we could more quickly use keyboard shortcuts. Late DOS programs gave you the best of both worlds, well-defined keyboard shortcuts combined with mouse capability. Modern programs have keyboard shortcuts, but finding them is about as difficult as finding a needle in the proverbial haystack.
At any rate, Clarion realized they were going to need mouse support, drop down menus, and more colorful screens, because users wanted it. If users wanted it, developers, the people who bought Clarion, had to have it if they were going to sell their programs. So out came version 3. How should I describe the difference between 2 and 3? If version 2 was smart little sports car, version 3 was a monster SUV with a four-cylinder engine and square wheels. It didn't go.
It was bulky; trying to convert existing apps was a fiasco; it crashed. Clarion developers, of which I was one (having written a quality control suite of applications for my QC department), battered their forums, screaming for relief. At this point, were Clarion a company in today's environment, they would have told us to go suck eggs, while they worked on another upgrade that we would have to buy just to restore previous functionality. But this was then, and software companies were a little more sensitive to user complaints. To their credit, Topspeed (who owned Clarion by this time), brought out version 3.1, which, while still slow, was, at least, completely functional. And they gave it to 3.0 users for no charge.
(Memory is dangerous; there may have been a charge, but if there was, it was nominal.)
So, while we weren't thrilled with 3.1, we could get back to work. I think one reason that Topspeed was so quick to release a fix was because they also had another mess on their hands: Clarion for Windows.
To this day, I have never understood why Microsoft's competitors gleefully shot themselves in the feet repeatedly by releasing Windows versions of their programs. Many fine DOS programs (including some of Microsoft's) were turned into miserable Windows versions that lacked functionality found in their older DOS counterparts. They “made up” for the lack of functionality by being unstable as well. Users stayed away from them in droves. Did the companies say, “Ok, we'll continue making good DOS programs and let Microsoft sink into the sunset with their crummy Windows programs”? No. They decided to get people to buy their Windows programs by stopping all new DOS development, then stopping sales of their existing DOS-based products. Thus, if you wanted the latest version of Harvard Graphics or Quattro Pro, you were getting Windows versions. In fact, if you wanted any version of these things you had to buy Windows versions.
Clarion, seeing where things were going, realized they needed a Windows database program. So they released one. Or maybe it slunk out of the building in the dead of the night. It was a mess. To be fair, most initial Windows versions of existing programs stunk, so Clarion was just following the usual pattern. Unfortunately, for developers already sinking under the weight of version 3, version 1 of the Clarion for Windows was just too much.
Once again, Topspeed did the right thing, and version 2 of the Windows app was a work of art. By the time it arrived, though, many developers had moved on to other products, including those from Microsoft. Clarion hung on, but they never really grew all that much.
Clarion is still around, if you're interested in Googling for it. Topspeed sold them a while back. It may still be a wonderful product, for all I know. If I were still writing apps, I would take a look at it, but I'd probably be pretty much a confirmed MS SQL developer by now.
The real difference between bad upgrades then and bad upgrades now is that companies used to try to actually fix things, if they could. More than one company couldn't fix the mess they had made and subsequently disappeared. Nowadays, companies just point to their EULA and say your problem ain't their problem. Alternatively, they tell you not to worry about it. They'll fix it in the next upgrade, which, of course, will cost just about what new software would cost.
My point is that the horrific upgrade has always been with us. Maybe the perceived difference is that you used to stand a chance of getting relief.

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