Friday, 27 April 2007

The cutting edge hurts

Life on the cutting edge can be very exciting, but on it can also be dangerous. There is a reason why the very latest development version of a piece of software is known informally as the "bleeding edge" and a very good reason why software in this state is not recommended for the majority of users because it is considered to be unstable, largely untested and possibly even a risk to the user and her data.

However, the two main computer software operating system developers (i.e. Microsoft and Apple) may disagree with this.

Microsoft recently launched Vista, its next generation operating system and sold twenty million in its first month. Needless to say they declared the launch a huge success, even going so far as to state that it was the most successful launch of any operating system in history. Of course, how many of these sales figures are actually OEM sales is a different story altogether.

Anecdotal evidence about how good Vista is comes from people I know and work with that have it - and its not good. A colleague of mine (who I shall call Mr T) ordered a new laptop recently for his son, but Mr T's son is gutted because Vista will not run iTunes. In addition, another colleague of mine (who I shall call Mad Dog) has had problems with putting his laptop to sleep which is also running Vista - and Mr T has the same issue too. The laptops are totally different models, one is an Acer and one is a Dell, so it wasnt the hardware that was the issue, it was the OS. A workaround for this was found by telling the oS to hibernate, which seems to take longer (i.e. a few seconds) but at least the machine doesnt have to be rebooted every time the lid is closed. These aren't the only issues I've heard about: Mad Dog also told me that his Nokia software suite doesn't work, he has had issues with Flash 8 and so on.

There is more evidence out there that Vista isn't quite the success story that Microsoft would have us believe. The recent news story of how Dell responds to customer feedback by bringing back Windows XP highlights this very issue. On Vista's release, they canned all of their XP machines and sold only PC's with Vista on them. This caused outrage and the internet was awash with unhappy customers, some of them taking their business elsewhere. Now though, eleven thousand responses saying bring back Windows XP has forced them to reverse this decision. People want computers that work, not computers that don't!

At this point I could be facetious and say "just buy a mac, it just works" and in most cases I would be right. But on the other side of the fence, in the mac world, things aren't so rosey either.

The mac recently switched its arcitecture over from the Power PC processors (G4, G5, etc) to Intel. The operating system 10.4 looks the same on either system type, but under the hood is running totally different code. The Intel macs use some software called Rosetta to handle applications that aren't compiled for the new Intel macs and effectively run this in emulation. This has been causing issues for some people on the Content Paradise forums (I would link to them but they require membership) with Poser becoming too slow to use and was recently fixed in Poser 7, which is now compiled to run on the Intel Macs natively. However, this has stuffed up everybody on the older G5 and G4 Power PC processors and this application is now unusable (ie too slow) on these. What a mess!

You might imagine photoshop would be a different story (as its really a flagship Mac package) but no, Photoshop CS 3 is the first universal binary that gives good performance on both system architectures and thats only just come out!

Effectively, in their own ways, Microsoft and Apple are releasing bleeding edge software on the masses without telling them. People are finding out that life on the edge wasn't what they wanted, but it was what they got anyway.

Thursday, 26 April 2007

Software patents and monkeys

Last week in the pub I had a conversation with a software patent attorney. He seemed like a good guy and he had passed eleven of the twelve tests necessary to be an attorney over here in the UK, so he was close. He seemed to know his stuff (another programmer friend of mine asked him some awkward questions and he wasn't phased by them) and clearly came from the point of view that software patents were necessary.

See, I'm a developer and I don't think they are. So we had an interesting discussion and it was good to talk to somebody coming from the opposite point of view. I guess you could say that you would expect me to support software patents as I create software for a living, but this isn't the case at all. I believe in Intellectual Property and copyright - that is if I create some software it becomes copyright to me or the company I'm working for that is paying me to create it. This isn't my issue at all.

I believe that software patents hold up innovation. There tend to be only so many ways to solve a problem, especially when interfaces are discussed - and interface design is so very important because it is the bridge between the human and the machine. So when I read this on Slashdot Apple Sued For Using Tabs In OS X Tiger it really just reaffirmed my position. For Apple to be sued for using tabs in its interfaces - such an integral part of a computer interface - is ridiculous. As is this recent news story Microsoft accused of patent infringement with .NET which describes the patent as "a system and method for generating computer applications in an arbitrary object framework." - a phrase so generic that it covers practically any object oriented programming environment. So if we were to take these two software patents seriously, we wouldn't be able to use tabs in interfaces or create object oriented programming frameworks any more, two serious blows against software in general.

This is all without mentioning how Compuserve / AOL owns the GIF format and BT owns hyperlinks.

How much more ridiculous can software patents get? Is the US patent office run by a team of monkeys who are trained to just rubber stamp everything? It sure seems so!