The Software Utility Cycle

There’s a well-known model called the “Hype Cycle”, which plots how technology evolves to the point of general adoption and usefulness. While there are a lot of detail variants, they all boil down to something like the following (courtesy Wikipedia & Gartner):

Hype Cycle


While this correctly plots the pattern of adoption of a new technology, it hides a nasty truth, that the “plateau of productivity” is not a picture of nice, gentle, continuous, enduring improvement. Eventually all good things must come to an end. Now sometimes what happens is that an older technology is replaced outright by a newer one, and the old one continues in obsolescence for a while, and then withers away. We understand that pattern quite well as well. However, I think we are now beginning to experience another behaviour, especially in the software world.

Welcome to the Software Utility Curve:

Software Utility Curve


We’re all familiar with the first couple of points on this curve. Someone has a great idea for a piece of software (the “outcrop of ideas”). V1 works, just about, and drums up interest, but it’s not unusual for there to be a number of obvious missing features, or for the number of initial bugs and incomplete implementations to almost outweigh the usefulness of the new concept. Hopefully suitably encouraged and funded, the developers get cracking moving up the “Escarpment of Error Removal”. At the same time the product grows new, major features. V2 is better, and V3 is traditionally stable, usefully and widely-acclaimed (the “Little peak of Usefulness”).

I give you, for example, Windows 3.1, or MS Office 4.0.

What happens next is interesting. It seems to be not uncommon that at this point the product is either acquired, or re-aligned by its parent company, or the developers realise that they’ve done a great job, but at the cost of some architectural dead-ends. Whatever the cause, this is the point of the “Great Architectural Rewrite Chasm”. The new version is maybe on a stronger foundation, maybe better integrated with other software, but in the process things have changed or broken. This can, of course, happen more than once…

MS Office 95? Certainly almost every alternative version of Windows (see my musings on the history and future of Microsoft Windows).

The problems can usually be fixed, and the next version is back to the stability and utility of the one at the previous “Little Peak of Usefulness”, maybe better.

Subsequent versions may further enhance the product, but there may be emerging evidence of diminishing returns. The challenge for the providers is that they have to change enough to make people pay for upgrades or subscriptions, rather than just soldiering on with an old version, but if the product is now a pretty much perfect fit to its niche there may be nowhere to go. Somewhere around Version 7 or 8, you get a product which is represents a high point: stable, powerful, popular. I call this the “Peak of Productivity”.

Windows 7. Office 2003. Acrobat 9.

Then the rot sets in, as the diminishing returns finally turn negative. The developers get increasingly desperate to find incremental improvements, and start thinking about change for its own sake. Pretty soon they come up with something which may have sounded great in a product strategy meeting, but which breaks compatibility, or the established user experience model, and we’re into negative territory. The problems may be so significant that the product is tipped into another chasm, not just a gentle downhill trundle.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I proudly present to you Microsoft Office 2007. With its ribbon interface which no-one likes, and incompatible file formats. We also proudly announce the Microsoft Chair of Studies into the  working of the list indentation feature…

I’m not sure where this story ends, but I feel increasing frustration with many of the core software products we all spend much of the day with. MS Office 2010+ is just not as easy to use as in the 2003 version. OK, youngsters who never used anything else may be comfortable with the ribbon, but I’m not convinced. I’m not sure I ever asked for the “improvements” we have received, but it annoys intensely that we still can’t easily set the indents in a list hierarchy, save the style, and it stays set. That  said, I have to credit Microsoft with a decent multi-platform solution in Office 365, so maybe there’s hope. Acrobat still doesn’t have the ability to cut/paste pages from one document to another, although you can do a (very, very fiddly) drag and drop to achieve the same thing… And this morning I watched an experienced IT architect struggling with settings in Windows 8, and eventually helped him solve the problem by going to Explorer and doing a right click, Manage, which fortunately still works like it did in Windows NT.

There’s an old engineering saying: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Sadly the big software companies seem to be incapable of following that sound advice.

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