Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The State of the Art.

"No compelling reason to upgrade". It's not just an anti-Microsoft slogan, it's the truth.

Now that they've had time to break it in, people everywhere have come to a dawning realization that Marc Orchant summarizes quite concisely in his ZDNet blog. Vista actually doesn't make you more productive.

Nevertheless, Microsoft have built themselves a business model that depends on your treating the OS as if it were a gallon of milk, complete with expiration date. It's not just Microsoft, etiher: other proprietary vendors depend on obsolescence as well. What they didn't count on is software also is subject to the truism that every invention reaches a point where it's good enough. Something external has to happen for innovation to progress beyond that point.

For instance, the wheel and axle was "good" enough from the time it was made. Incredibly solid wheels are still good enough for slow-moving conveyances like wagons. It took the invention of the motor to drive widespread adoption of the pneumatic tire (invented by John Dunlop and popularized by Michelin). It's been 120 years since we've seen more than incremental improvement in this invention. We've seen various belts and changes in materials, but nothing fundamentally new until the tweel.

Software isn't exempt from these kinds of plateaus. Unlike tires, though, software doesn't wear out. Tire manufacturers don't depend on innovation to pay their daily expenses; they depend on the fact that you've got to periodically replace the tread that wore off your tires (where does all that rubber go, you might wonder!). Software manufacturers have depended on constant improvement across the industry to drive sales. Older versions look tired and worn-out by comparison to the surrounding environment. In some cases, changes to the environment have broken perfectly good application software, forcing upgrade or migration.

But this isn't a situation that will go on forever, and Marc isn't the only one to notice that all is not as the marketing execs would have you believe. James Fallows has been to the plateau. Christopher Dawson in his Education IT blog notes that Moore's Law is already failing in education tech. The part that's still secret is that it's largely irrelevant everywhere else, too... most people just haven't figured it out yet.

The OS is already good enough that Vista hasn't improved your productivity one whit. Likewise, Office software has been good enough for the last several years that MS Office 2007 adds almost nothing in the way of productivity enhancements. It's real purpose is to drive software sales for Microsoft. The real hope is that the need to interoperate with the new OOXML file formats will force upgrades on people that otherwise have exactly zero reasons to upgrade. Office software is such a commodity at the present time that for the vast majority of users there is no justification for paying anything at all for it when they can use instead. As always there is some subset of users that need features. Let them buy it, and let them worry about compatibility with the mainstream.

Where it's going

So if we're reaching a plateau for both the OS and productivity software, what happens to the vendors that have for the last 20 years been making money hand over fist? What can we expect from them in the future?

We're seeing some of it now. Software publishers are pushing for more web services, and it's not always because web services are really better for you. Where web services differ from traditional client software is that they enable a company to extract usage fees out of you for something that you might otherwise own outright at a much lower cost. It enables them to continue making money hand over fist when a good reason for it is long past.

Let's have a concrete example, shall we? Office software. We now see a spate of Web 2.0 apps, including Google Docs & Spreadsheets, that offer us ubiquitous access to office applications. Some do so for a monthly fee while others are paid for by ads. Still others have yet to figure out a way to monetize the service. All of them are rubbish in comparison to desktop software. Yet that's where the development push is, not because it's better for you. PCs and servers are commodities now, and it's not at all difficult to set up file sharing, etc. with what you already have. The desktop software you have is light-years ahead of these web apps. Even the argument that these offer access from any web browser falls flat when faced with the realization that you get access via browser to better software by remote controlling your own computer using LogMeIn or GoToMyPC. But Web apps are hyped because the desktop office suite you just bought just might be your last. It's good enough.

The same can be said for the OS. We already know that XP is good enough, so what changes can we predict there? Well, when obsolescence fails, manufacturers rely on planned obsolescence. I expect existing Windows users will be targeted via Windows Update. Now, Windows Update is supposed to deliver bug fixes, but I expect it to deliver new "features" that are designed to prod you into unnecessary upgrades. We've already seen Microsoft's willingness to back-door software through Windows Update (such as Genuine Advantage, which was not a bug fix and had no place in that channel). What these "features" might be is open to all sorts of speculation, but I think it's safe to expect that new features will rely on the latest whiz-bang hardware features on the market and will be calculated to make existing installations feel slow and old. This prompts new computer sales, and the OS comes along for the ride.

We're not out of innovation

I really don't mean to sound like Charles H. Duell, the patent commissioner who back in 1899, announced that "everything that can be invented has been invented." That's not it at all. Nor am I a Luddite that wants everything to remain the same. I am, after all, a technologist by trade. But when we're looking applying computers to business uses we don't do things just because we can or because everybody else is. The only reason we do things is because it makes economic sense.
  • Does it make sense to "upgrade" an OS when there will be no productivity gain?
  • Does it make sense to "upgrade" Office software with the same result?
  • Does it make sense to pay hundreds of dollars for productivity software or rent software as a service when free replacements can be had that meet your business needs?
  • Does it make sense to upgrade your hardware when the hardware you have is supporting your usage?
If the answers is "no" to any of these, then don't do it. Don't upgrade just to upgrade. Upgrade based on need, and demand something in return. There is and will be innovation, but not in all areas, and not on some regular schedule. When it applies to you, take advantage of it. When it doesn't, don't be fooled by a shiny new facade. Above all, don't be bullied into adopting somebody else's agenda.