Monday, January 25, 2010

App Stores Are Not A Blessing

App StoreImage via Wikipedia

Everything is getting an app store. Not just one for every phone manufacturer, but now there's one for digital pens, and bluetooth headsets. Televisions and Blu-ray discs players are updating their own firmware over the Internet, and glorified clock-radios are made to download new capabilities.

We are going to a situation where every piece of electronics can be customized post-sale. Which is going to have two unfortunate consequences:

  1. Devices are going to be even unfriendlier to use, because the out-of-box experience will be given short thrift with the idea of 'the user will fix it'. In a rush to be first and cheapest, product developers often do not spend a lot of time testing and thinking and testing and thinking about how to make the easiest product with the best default settings. Now that product managers will be able to say "the user will fix it with an after-market download developers will make, so ship it now", the design cycle will be even more under pressure, and it will show in clunky products that require mandatory downloads -- and cash -- to be enjoyable. No being delighted from the moment you unpack it. Already, I have been told, users have to wait an extra half hour in between hooking up their Sony PS3 and getting to play because of firmware updates needing to be downloaded and installed. This will get worse.

  2. The future is going to be even buggier. Making a product modifiable means creating programming interfaces and machines that can execute programs. A closed system is bounded, it can theoretically be exhaustively tested for all circumstances and button-presses. An open system has no such predictability, really, and is mostly debugged through years of feedback from users and developers running programs trying the combinations of programming calls in all kind of different and unexpected ways.

My Discrete Mathematics lecturer in college used to say there was a Law Of Conservation of Misery: the short-cut trick you used to cleverly shorten the steps in one part of a proof only meant you had to spend more time and sweat on other parts, always. I think this Law also goes for buggyness in systems: yes, some manufacturers are working harder to really entice consumers with well thought-out experiences, but the rest of our electronics will be designed to shoot themselves in the foot even more, and take our time and sanity down with them as collateral damage.