We Make Shitty Software
Sunday, September 3, 1995 by Dave Winer.
An old software slogan at Living Videotext: "We Make Shitty Software... With Bugs!" It makes me laugh! We never ran this slogan in an ad. People wouldn't understand. But it's the truth. We make shitty software. And so do you!
Software is a process, it's never finished, it's always evolving. That's its nature. We know our software sucks. But it's shipping! Next time we'll do better, but even then it will be shitty. The only software that's perfect is one you're dreaming about. Real software crashes, loses data, is hard to learn and hard to use. But it's a process. We'll make it less shitty. Just watch!
Talking with an unhappy customer, first validate their belief that you've let them down. I agree that our software isn't perfect. You won't get an argument here. Let's move on, find a workaround, a way to get your data back. And we promise to take a look at this problem and, if possible, fix it in the next release.
So, when you get an upgrade, you look for the process, see if they responded to your needs. Which way are they moving?
If you *still* want to yell at me, please listen to the Indigo Girls song "In Love with Your Ghost."
A lover let her down. She's still in love, or thinks she is. But it's not actually love. She wants to avoid the pain that comes with growth. She could let go, move on, stop waiting for someone else to make her life make sense. But it's not time yet. And it's OK. You can't hurry love!
It seems the Indigo Girls would have some advice for Macintosh users: find meaning elsewhere in your life. Just as there's more to a woman than the person she sleeps with, there's more to who you are than the kind of computer you use. Maybe Windows isn't so great. Maybe you will continue to use your Macintosh. And it's OK. But the truth is that, as of August 24, there are advantages to using both platforms. If you don't recognize that now, you're living in a fantasy world.
DaveNet is a swirl of issues. They come and go. One week Microsoft is the focus of attention, next week it's Apple. Stay tuned, you'll hear more about the operating system faceoff. It ain't over till it's over.
But it's time to re-examine another thread -- the evolution of standards for the worldwide web. The faceoff is between Netscape and Microsoft. The territory they're fighting over is the world of web content development. The weaponry is each company's web browser. Microsoft includes theirs with new PCs, gaining a likely installed base consensus on the platform that eighty percent of PC users use. Netscape gives their browser away, bundles it with lots of PCs, and it's freely downloadable from the web itself. I bet you can download the Netscape browser using the Microsoft browser. Cute!
Q: What do Netscape and Microsoft want?
A: The exclusive right to move the HTML standard forward.
They can't both get what they want, so this makes great fodder for DaveNet rants. A president of a large publishing company asked me last week how it was going to shake out. I said I don't know! He asked me to make a call. For the first time in a long time, I had to say I really can't make a call.
Now that Microsoft's browser is shipping, we can see how the battle is shaping up. Did they make it Netscape-compatible? No. Many websites use a wonderful feature called "tables" that Netscape implements, that Microsoft doesn't. Sites that use tables look shitty when you browse them with Microsoft's browser, and they look great when you browse them with Netscape. What should the website designer do? Take the feature out of the site? It's hard or impossible to have one page for Windows users and one for Netscape users.
Although Microsoft people deny it, this is a shot over Netscape's bow. They're testing their power. Will the web developer community get in line with Microsoft? Certainly *some* of them will.
Some site managers didn't use tables because it isn't in the common-denominator definition of HTML. Those guys look reallly good now. It's possible to make a great website without using tables. But more and more, when I see a pretty site, and I want to figure out how they did it, I view their source and find that they did it with tables. It's not an insignificant omission by Microsoft. It's extremely significant.
When I was in Seattle last week I had a meeting with Microsoft's Blackbird team, I got to play Twenty Questions, piecing together for myself Microsoft's current plan for evolving the worldwide web. They're not going to be humble! Pedal to the metal. They see a vacuum and want to fill it. The tables issue *is* just a shot across the bow. They're building battleships, getting the marines ready, loading up their bombers and training fighter pilots.
As usual, Microsoft's technology is not the best, but as usual it probably won't matter. Netscape isn't too entrenched to be displaced by a powerful Microsoft presence. But the natural ally of the web community is Netscape, they're too small to *not* respond to their needs.
I said Apple could run the JFK ad: "Ask not what the Internet can do for you, ask what you can do for the Internet." Here's an important point -- Netscape could run that ad too. And really embrace the concept. In fact, I think it's the only winning strategy for them.
The faceoff between Microsoft and Netscape is great fodder for DaveNet, but it's an equally great topic for people who make their living putting up websites and keeping them on the air, people like Jeffrey Veen, firstname.lastname@example.org. He's the chief interface architect at HotWired, the online zine that I write for. Jeff has been participating in the debate on HTML standards on the Apple Internet Authoring list.
I asked Jeff for some comments, here's what he had to say...
To: DaveNet readers
Re: Web Standards
I see pages all over the web that tell me their site is Enhanced for Netscape 1.1 or some such. I wonder what it would have been like if this had happened in other industries? Would we be watching Dateline NBC Enhanced for Zenith 19-inch Trinitron?
On all the HTML newsgroups and mailing lists I follow, it seems that Netscape extensions vs the HTML 3.0 specification is the most heated debate, as hot as Mac vs. Windows, or Emacs vs. vi. People argue that they can't create effective web pages without the Netscape Extensions. But I think every time a Netscape tag is implemented, the value of HTML as a standard language is decreased. And that, I would argue, will severely *limit* web design creativity in the not-so-long run. Take a step back from the current crop of aesthetically pleasing web pages for a moment and think about this.
The web, as a medium, has proven its potential to replace all other media. Print, radio, television, telephone, and others not yet even dreamed of are all able to be distributed over a peer to peer network like the Internet. HTML is the first crude, infantile step toward describing those bits of information as they are transferred from one networked device to another.
In the beginning, way back in the prehistoric days of the early 90s, this could happen because a group of people decided to do it the same way. If we all speak the same language, we can all communicate effortlessly all the time whereever we are with whatever we are using. That's how TV works. That's why you can call anyone in the entire world with the phone on your desk.
The web works especially well because no assumptions were made. The creators of this system didn't assume you'd be using a "standard multimedia computer with at least 256 colors, etc. etc." In fact, they didn't even assume you'd be using a computer. Therefore, for content to work at its most effective level, it needs to be formatted so that *any* device can render it.
Imagine a web browser that plugs into the dashboard of your car, letting you listen to web pages read to you by a digital voice composite. I've seen a prototype. The color of a link becomes a bit less important when you need to render it as a sound.
Nicholas Negroponte argues in "Being Digital" that the most important bits in the universe are the "bits about bits" -- the ones that describe the rest. In his example of a football broadcast, you would be able to decide how the bitstream is rendered. You can have them rendered as a video representation of the game, which would be different from the audio-only rendering, which in turn would be different from the schematic diagram rendering of the plays and statistics. Or you could combine them. Or just have it printed to read later.
A company like Netscape fears giving the users this sort of choice, much as ABC and Time fear the new media. Giving users a choice means they can choose something else. "If we control the media, the revenue can only flow to us." The opposite is what used to be bitchen about the Net. You just got the raw data, and could format it in anyway you want. My email looks much different in Eudora than my friend's Telnet window and Pine. We have a choice in how our media is rendered. [And then you have cable modems - 10 Mbits to the home, 19.2K back because all the happy consumer has to do is click the "Purchase" button. That, to me, is insulting -- but that's the direction we're heading.]
Designing content that can only be rendered effectively in one application for three computer platforms is way too shortsighted. Just give me a choice, and suggest the presentation.
BTW, HotWired is looking marvelous -- their pages look good in either Netscape *or* in Microsoft because they never used tables. They don't want to be beholden to one vendor. An interesting strategy and a courageous one, and a winning one (at least so far).
Check out http://www.emtex.com/toptips/.
It's like a public whiteboard. And the funniest website yet! People leave their favorite tips on anything and everything.
A few examples:
"Duct tape is like The Force: it has a light side and a dark side, and it holds the universe together."
"If you want to try something really interesting, do this: Call up CNN and ask: 'Hey, what the heck is really going on over there in Bosnia Herzagovenia?' I did this. It blows them away because its really to tough for them to figure out either."
"In order to speed up processing of a spreadsheet function, repeatedly hit the return key. Your CPU will sense your urgency, and process your data more quickly. Also works to unlock your keyboard when it freezes."
"Always, no wait, never, no, always carry a litter bag in your car. It doesn't take up much room, and you can always toss it out your window if it gets full."
"Never pet a burning cat."
Thanks to Glenn Davis, email@example.com, for pointing at this site, it was yesterday's Cool Site of the Day.
PS: Jeff Veen has his own website at http://www.veen.com/.
PPS: According to Chip Bayers, firstname.lastname@example.org, managing editor at HotWired, Netscape is still running strong -- 70 percent of the hits on HotWired are coming from Netscape users, only 1.5 percent are using Microsoft's browser. But Microsoft had zero percent last week, and they're already a larger presence than America OnLine's web browser. We'll check in with Chip from time to time to see how the users are moving.