Not All Movement Is Progress

I was having a conversation with a friend recently. We both work in “Big Tech.” Both our employers are sensitive to employees making remotely public statements – and his in particular is pretty notorious for over-reacting. So in an abundance of caution I’ll point out that this rambling represents neither of our companies – just a conversation between two people who’ve been in tech “a fair while.”

We were talking about the most recent operating system released by a Big Tech company that runs on their fruit-themed hardware.

The release has caused a bit of a kerfuffle – it no longer runs a set of applications that were supported by its predecessor. Like other transitions in this company’s past, this one was deliberate and foreshadowed across a couple years. If a customer depends on an application that this OS won’t run, they find an alternative, convince themselves they don’t really need that application, or they don’t upgrade. This last is problematic. Not in the short term – they’ll still get critical updates for their old operating system for a while – but eventually. And if they need to buy new fruit-themed hardware, that new hardware likely won’t run that old operating system. So those customers are one hardware failure away from running out of options.

It’s also generally been a bit of a bumpy release. The initial release had more than its fair share of issues, and even after a couple minor releases there are ongoing sources of customer pain and breakage. I’ve encountered some of these bumps personally, and I reached out to this friend – on a personal basis – to relate my anecdote.

I think it’s safe to say that most tech consumers don’t have personal contacts inside “Big Tech.” They can potentially contact support if they have a problem, but that’s where it ends.

“I don’t expect you to fix this,” I started, “I just want you to hear the unfiltered voice of your customer.” I went on to explain the problem, and how I thought they could have given their customers more options – as they had during past large technology transitions.

I pointed out that, from my perspective, this transition was different from the big transitions in the past. In the past, I argued, customers saw a difference, and that visibility made the changes – even the unwelcome ones – easier to understand. During the transition from their “classic” operating system to their NeXT (sic.) generation operating system in c. 2001, everything looked different. When they changed the CPU their machines were built around in c. 2006, customers bought new computers. Those changes were moments of transition – painful transitions for some customers – that enabled new things.

This time, a customer who “upgrades” their software gets to do less. And it’s pretty hard to explain to a customer how being able to do less enables new things.

That got me thinking about the idea of progress in computing, and software. This is a case where we’re “improving” a computing systems by making it do less than it could do before – and that feels like not progress.

Maybe I’m just old. Part of me can’t give up the Apple ][ that I could open the cover on, and basically understand from the component level up.

That’s not computers anymore.  And as magical as carrying the internet around in my pocket, or on my wrist, is – and it is – I think we’ve lost some valuable things along the way.

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