Wednesday, October 17, 2012

When is "Better" Really "Better"?

Years ago, like, way back in 2003, there was a thing that large software vendors used to do called an "open Beta" program.  This was when the vendor would invite large numbers of current and potential customers to kick the tires on forthcoming new products, or new versions of existing products.  Phew! That was a long-winded sentence, wasn't it?

Nearly every vendor, small to large, supported this approach to vetting their ideas for marketability.  Some still exist.  Some are long gone.  Microsoft.  IBM.  Novell (who?).  Allaire, later eaten by Macromedia, later to be gobbled up by Adobe.  Autodesk. Sun Microsystems (now Oracle).  Even WinZip had a "beta program" you could sign up for.  The process was simple: You enrolled, downloaded the binaries, installed them and agreed to submit bug reports and feature requests.  In the end, when the program concluded, you (most-often) received a complimentary license for the final product result.  Many participants earned licenses for Windows, Office, AutoCAD, WinZip, ColdFusion, Dreamweaver, and many other products.

The best part of this whole era was the blurred distinction between the textbook definitions of "Alpha" and "Beta" as they pertain to software development.

You see, in the early days, when guys wore white button-down shirts with pocket protectors, and taped up glasses with slicked-over hair (yes, think IBM in the 1970's), the term "Alpha" meant that features were still in a state of flux, while "Beta" meant features were locked-down, but functionality and reliability needed to be tested.  That's a big difference.  Luckily for us (consumers/geeks), most of these vendors had spent so much time on the bong wagon that they forgot about such distinctions.  It was fairly common to engage an engineer in a forum, or by e-mail, even by phone, to brainstorm about a new feature or idea. You could expect frequent build updates to reveal new features and options, even new UI changes, along the way.

Those days are gone.  They have since been replaced with "Community Preview" and "Pre-Release" programs.  These are died-in-the-wool "Beta" programs, where the ear for new ideas is Deaf, and all the vendor wants from you is a thumbs-up.  If you have a thumbs-down, well, you're obviously not in their target demographic.  When you encounter something you don't care for, you find yourself at a loss for avenues to submit your counter-suggestions back to the vendor.  They really don't want to hear about it now.  It's too late in the process.  The bean-counters have put a stake in the ground for target release dates, and communicated it to their "platinum" partners and shareholders.  To make drastic changes at that stage might risk their credibility with people who have NO idea what the "soft" in "software" really means.  But they have the money and that's all that counts.

Take for example this situation:

You release an early "preview" version of the next version of your flagship product to the masses.  The media outlets are given an even earlier "preview" so they can start the hype machine in full motion, thereby drumming up increased desire in the geek minds.  The hype machine vortex is at stage two now.  Stage one is when you start blabbering to the press about new features before letting anyone actually see them.

Within the first week, the Internet is a-buzz with some particular aspect of your new feature-set that users really don't care for.  How bad do they not care for it?  So bad that they start building add-on software to disable or modify that feature.

If that doesn't speak directly into the eyeballs and brains of those driving the machine (in this case: YOU), then you are already losing the battle.

Any half-decent first-year marketing student would say that if your customers are consistently and overwhelmingly changing your product in a very specific and consistent manner, then it's time you modify your product so they don't have to.  It's called "customer satisfaction".

Ok.  I've danced around this as thinly as I can without saying the obvious, so I'm just going to say the obvious:

Windows 8 "metro" tile interface might be nice for a touch-screen medium, but a mouse and keyboard (you know, the kind that almost ALL of Microsoft's customers still use) it sucks.  That's not just my opinion, you can search Google or Bing or whatever you prefer and find plenty of gripes about the new interface on a traditional platform.  And if anyone thinks the new UI is enough force du jour to entice even half of their install base to dump their desktops and buy Surface products to replace them, well, you need to put down the Kool Aid.  But Microsoft says the new UI is "better".  "Better" by who's rationale?  Theirs?  Obviously it's not the rationale of the thousands, maybe millions of users that have installed add-ons like ClassicShell or Start8, which suppress the tile interface and "restore" a Windows 7 style Start Menu.

I guess we're supposed to stop deciding for ourselves and accept what we're told?  My ancestors would roll over in their graves at the thought of that.

(image copyright: Lifehacker.com)
Don't get me wrong, there's a lot to like about Windows 8.  But just like Microsoft did with Windows 7, they missed the marketing train.  Microsoft seems to insist on aiming their hype cannon at the general consumer, when their bread-and-butter base is really in enterprise environments and large organizations.  Enterprises are more interested in things like automation, manageability, customization, configuration management, update management, security, reliability... and things that boil down to LOWER COST and INCREASED OUTPUT from their operations.  But they hardly spewed a word about those things when promoting Windows 7, except within small circles (TechNet, MSDN, etc.).

I lost count of IT professionals who struggled to build their own business cases to convince their management to consider upgrading from XP to 7, when Vista left them totally cold.  They shouldn't have had to do their own legwork.  Microsoft should have sold it for them, but their big-dollar bullhorn was blasting out how "cool" it was/is, and the music and games, and trying to be cool and trendy with ads that mimic their contemporaries.  I see the same thing happening with Windows 8, unfortunately.

My prediction is that an "option" will emerge to switch between them, at least on traditional platforms (desktops and laptops).  Time will tell if Tiles are better than Start Menus and Desktops.
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