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8/25/2009
02:50 PM
Alexander Wolfe
Alexander Wolfe
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Paging AIM: Why Does Software Always Get Worse?

Two unpleasant bouts with updated software have led me to formulate Wolfe's First Law of Programming: An upgraded, enhanced, or otherwise supposedly improved software release will always perform more poorly than the rev which it replaces. My two cases in point are AIM 6.9.15.1 -- you gotta love their configuration control -- and Time Warner Cable's latest electronic programming guide.

Two unpleasant bouts with updated software have led me to formulate Wolfe's First Law of Programming: An upgraded, enhanced, or otherwise supposedly improved software release will always perform more poorly than the rev which it replaces. My two cases in point are AIM 6.9.15.1 -- you gotta love their configuration control -- and Time Warner Cable's latest electronic programming guide.As my three regular readers know, poorly designed software is one of my pet peeves. (See my post, More Than Coding Mistakes At Fault In Bad Software.) Today's two examples are inducted into my personal software hall of shame based on that fact that any below-the-surface bug fixes they accomplish are buried beneath an observably poorer user experience.

With the AOL Instant Messenger update, the issue is admittedly minor, but reoccurs so often -- because that's how you use AIM -- that it's an annoying repeat offender. Personally, I didn't want to upgrade my version of AIM at all -- I was perfectly happy with 6.8.12.3, or was it 6.7.7.4? -- but the persistent "Active Update" box yipping its flashing blue message on the lower right-hand corner of my screen finally wore me down.

So here's the nuisance: It's the box which often pops up when you're trying to close your IM window. The box reads "You have new or unread IMs." Unfortunately, it appears not only on those rare occasions when you actually have unread AIMs, but frequently when you have "new" AIMs that you have in fact read. It's just that you haven't performed a hard mouse click inside the IM window, which I supposed is what indicates to the program that you've "read" the IM. In the real world, you have in fact "seen" the IM, but you just didn't click that you've seen it.

I could see where such a warning would, by design, pop up. Except that, in the previous version of AIM, it didn't in the identical case. Which makes me wonder whether the previous version's more user-friendly behavior was accidental, rather than by design.

Hey, if I wanted this type of annoyance, I'd enable my User Account Controls on Windows Vista.




AIM's annoying "have you read the message" message. Yes; go away.

OK, on to my second example, which is the upgraded Electronic Programming Guide (aka TV listings) on Time Warner Cable.

This one is so mind-boggling annoying in minor yet user-experience-affronting ways that I don't know where to begin. (It's almost like it was designed by the Post Office.) In the previous guide, the guide would only go off to reload program data -- during which time the TV program in the upper-right-hand picture-in-picture windows goes blank -- on rare occasions, such as when you scrolled 24 hours ahead.

Now, it goes blank with every fourth or fifth click. Which says to me that the new software has a lot of calls in there telling it to suck down data, including times when the data is probably already on hand.

As well, you can't scroll through the guide's channels list while a volume change is waiting to settle. (The volume bars take several seconds to go away; more seconds than the actual volume change, btw.)

I don't even mind that the second-level screen, where you used to be able to find programs by category -- used only for "sports"; does anyone search "drama"? -- has been revamped to the point where it's unusable. I simply want my normal, couch-potato remote-control experience back.

A decade ago, I'd have shaken my head at such amateurism. These days, I'm no longer surprised. I take it as a given that methodological software design is a skill that is rapidly being driven to extinction by today's time to market pressures. Though not as quickly as is common sense.



Time Warner Cable's electronic programming guide frequently phones home to download data.


Follow me on Twitter: (@awolfe58)

What's your take? Let me know, by leaving a comment below or e-mailing me directly at alex@alexwolfe.net.

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Alex Wolfe is editor-in-chief of InformationWeek.com.

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