At any given period, there are about three or four recurring computing gripes and moans circulating around the PC Pro office. Some of them are genuine problems or fundamentally bad design in operating systems or software; some of them are simply those irritating little inconveniences that fall just below the threshold of being worth fixing right now, even though they’d certainly be worthwhile if you added up all the individual recurrences.
I’m sure my constant annoyance with the way Word 2003 handles formatting styles could be fixed if I just took 20 minutes to read the online help and set up some document templates or something. Instead, I just rant to my hapless office neighbour Tim Danton about how, on God’s clean earth, a right-hand task pane of unnamed and apparently random combinations of font families and sizes could ever possibly be useful. The gripe is entirely avoidable, notwithstanding the fact that the only reason there’s a gripe at all is because of some lousy interface design. But, of course, a few years back you could barely go a day without someone flying off the handle about having to reboot Windows 3.1/95/98/ME at least once every six hours. That’s a distant memory now, with a crash-reboot frequency of typically two months.
However, there’s one recurring gripe that gains more momentum with each cycle, to the point of it being more or less a constant refrain, encapsulated in a minor catchphrase first uttered by PC Pro’s reviews editor. It’s the feeling that, in trying to be helpful and assist us in keeping our software up to date, bug-free and just generally better than it was two hours ago, developers are creating software that uses us for its own ends and not the other way round. The phrase coined by Mr Burridge is that we’ve got to keep the machines happy. Suddenly, software needs tending to, updating, fettling and mollycoddling. It wants to make sure it’s okay, but needs our help to do it. It’s all a little bit like gardening but without the nice smells.
It’s a pervasive and bad trend, which has become so ridiculously ingrained that it appears to be expected that any piece of software worth its salt must constantly be interrupting what you were doing to ask for permission to pop off onto the Internet to see if it needs anything, or to ask whether it’s doing a good job.
This is the point at which a shoddy analogy is usually forthcoming, so I’ll oblige: imagine if, every time you opened your dishwasher to put in a mucky butter knife, a little barrier popped up with a sign pinned to it saying that before proceeding you must telephone the repair man in case the dishwasher was broken, or in danger of being broken, or there was some obscure chance that, given the correct circumstance, it was theoretically plausible that a malicious individual could possibly cause it to be broken. And I know that when Microsoft initiated the idea of apologising about all this and letting us know how Windows is terribly sorry that the application has encountered an error and would we like to Send or Not Send, it had the best of intentions at heart. But it was unwittingly dumping us at the top of a long slope with no apparent friction at all.
I can tell when my dishwasher is broken because when I open it the plates aren’t clean. And I can tell when my software is broken because, when I launch it, it will no longer do the things I want it to do. If I’m starting an application to do something I did perfectly happily yesterday, three hours before or barely two minutes ago and for God’s sake please DO NOT REMIND ME AGAIN, EVER, there’s no need for an update.