Computers have changed. We once thought of computers as large noisy machines taking up space at our desks, humming away as we went about our day to day business. Then laptops came onto the scene and we found ourselves taking these shrunken desk-hummers around with us, straining against our shoulders as we got out of the office, and running out of battery at the least convenient moment. Slowly but surely, these portable computers got better; lighter and faster, with better batteries. But they remained essentially the same as the machines once clogging our desks, because inside they really were just shrunken down versions of the same components, running the same software.
Then, people started shrinking machines even further. The first introduction of Personal Digital Assistants saw us taking programmable computers in our pockets. They didn’t do very much back then, mainly a note-taking, email checking device with tiny monochrome screens, but it signalled an important change.
One thing is for sure. They weren’t born from the same machines on our desks. They didn’t run the same software. And as they grew in functionality, they allowed you to do more and more, becoming less of a toy or a digital curiosity and more like a tool. Then the tiny screens grew larger one day, the day the iPad was introduced. Sure, tablet PCs had been done before, but one detail was different. The software. It didn’t run the same software birthed from humming desktops but rather, derived its software from the tiny screened pocket devices.
Now this was an important detail. Because desktop computers had been with us too long, and everybody presumed that they should work a certain way. Trying to shoehorn desktop software into a portable computer was a fine exercise in shrinking the physical parts, but you couldn’t get away from their true nature. The software was designed for the keyboard and mouse, cost you an arm and a leg and littered your desktop with a dozen shortcuts.
Perhaps the best example of the worst offender is email. Its bad form to point fingers, but I’m afraid I have to. Microsoft and its Outlook and Exchange software are perhaps the most known names in business software, complimenting each other and making sure neither of them really change or evolve fast enough to keep up with the world.
Exchange feeds emails to your ever hungry Outlook application. Let’s not even go too deep into how ridiculously obese Outlook data files can become. Instead, let’s just take a closer look at how Outlook can bite the hand that feeds it. Exchange software allows you to synchronize not just your mail, but your calendar, contacts and even your task lists. Nothing wrong there, you begin to wonder, what’s there to complain about? It even lets you check your personal email account even with all this exchanging its doing, being all corporate and busy.
One day, you find yourself needing to access two Exchange accounts. Whether the company you’re working at acquires/gets acquired by another, or you decide to start your own business, or you decide to become a spy and take on multiple identities. Outlook simply won’t have it. Its corporate-ness decides that you belong wholly to your primary organisation. No way is it going to let you have two Exchange accounts. To heck with your startup idea. You’re not working on that on your boss’s laptop.
My trusty 2 year old android phone lets me add as many distinct personalities as my brain can keep track of, and so does any iPad, iPhone or any number of Android devices. How did this happen? How did these supposed limited functionality mobile devices become more functionable than the supposed all-encompassing desktop?
I’ll admit that this isn’t a problem faced by the majority. You have one computer, you work for one company, and that’s the end of it. But this problem is symptomatic of the state of software as a whole. I doubt many would read along if I went into an in-depth explanation of the technical reasons why this issue even exists, so I won’t start. Besides, its a really bad excuse.
Software has gone from something companies buy and issue to you to something developers need to make you want, and so have computers, mobile or otherwise. That’s the real reason. Nobody respected the user (that’s you) until quite recently, and it made all the difference when developers were forced to care.
Not every software scenario plays out the same way; you’re still far from being able to create CAD layouts or vector art on your iDevice, but the progress thus far has been encouraging. Especially when we find we can no longer do anything without software.
By Victor Huang