Jan 27, 2008

Backwards compatibility

I had a problem with a friend's website a while ago. He asked me to review some documents and make any suggestions I might have. But when I tried to download the PDFs, Adobe killed my Firefox session. Up to then, Firefox had been much more reliable than Explorer, which has a bug that makes it frequently fail when you are using a dot.net site. Thank you, Microsoft. Once again, releasing a product expecting customers to be your testers. Would you like to go up in an airplane that was released that way?

Anyway, I had had no trouble with PDFs up to then, and could easily download some of them from the same site, so I contacted my friend. He told me that my problem was probably that I wasn't using the 8.0 version of Adobe reader. That was correct. I'm always a bit wary of downloading a new version of anything. I wasn't even consciously aware that there was a new version.

Thus I treated my friend to a little essay on backwards compatibility. Users are likely to be a version or two behind the latest. So if you used the latest version of Adobe (when did they stop calling it Acrobat?), if it was not developed to work for users of the previous version, your users could have problems. True, it's Adobe's fault if they didn't design their software to create documents readable by their previous version, but it's your choice that shoots you in the foot. Your customer just gets frustrated and goes away or goes to the trouble to tell you. Your customer doesn't think,"Oh, I need to update a piece of software. I'll just go and do that right now." The documents didn't even display a message that it was Adobe's incompatibility - they left my friend holding the bag.

Anyone who's now stuck with Microsoft Vista on their new computer has the same problem. Most things don't work and you're forced to replace a bunch of software.

My understanding is that Apple's latest operating system release, Leopard, pretty much works with anything you're likely to own. I'm just waiting for that new MacBook Air to show up - a 3-lb laptop! An innovative change to its design -- it remains to be seen if their assumption is true -- but they eliminated the optical drive. Their assumption is that you will download all the movies and programs you need wirelessly. If you absolutely need to use an optical drive for something, it is designed to communicate with your other computers so you can tap into their drives.

Note how our world has changed -- of course you have other computers! Your house and office are probably cluttered with them. Now you can take satisfaction that your just-in-case behavior has paid off. I'm finding myself deferring on replacing my desktop and using my laptop for everything. It's still sitting in the basement, taking up space. But we've also got the laptop my husband keeps on the couch next to mine, and his desktop PC, plus the desktop before that, since he hasn't fully moved all his stuff because he has to deal with the Vista problem.

Compatibility issues killed my old desktop. It was using Windows 1938, I think, so he tried installing a copy of his Windows Today (I don't know what version is what - do I have to remember all that to sound competent in the world?). What's the worst that can happen -- it won't open and tells you to go back to what you have clear rights to use? No - it won't open and effectively kills your computer. I know there must be some clever way to get into DOS and save it, but how? Don't bother telling me -- I never trusted Microsoft so I backed up everything I could. More compatibility - my thumb drive and my desktop PC didn't want to talk to each other, so I had to use the CD drive to make disks. I figured I could reinstall any legal programs from disks. But I never bothered, just put everything on the laptop. The PC had reached the age where it sort of churned around aimlessly when I asked it to do anything. What's that all about? Was the product lifecycle designed to move along to the absent-minded grandpa stage?

All these computer and software designers think they're pretty clever. It's more work and takes more research to figure out how old and new versions of things can live together peacefully. So why not make up the excuse that it will cause users to upgrade everything just like you want them to? That's a process that they like to spend their time doing anyway. But I consider that attitude grave disrespect for my time and needs. Makes me mad.

It's also a violation of lean principles to change a process that will propagate likely interruptions and defects all over the system, assuming that people elsewhere in the system will just cheerfully and magically overcome them. And without holistic and global systems thinking, that's just what's going to happen. It's more work to examine the larger impact of changes you make to your node of the system. You may think that your design project is less lean because it will take longer, but you have to do it anyway. Isn't Japanese culture known for taking a long time to consider a large-scale change, but much quicker for people to make the change when the decision comes down?

Hey - if you design software, electronic hardware, or measuring cups (notice how they all use ounce/cup markings?), give your customer a break. Let them make changes when they are ready. It's not like you have to make concessions to someone using an old DOS computer, but have some mercy on the rest of us. Maybe we're resisting change for a reason - like that new stuff like Explorer causes us grief when it embodies disrespect for our needs.

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