Aug 11 2014
Back in the dark ages, when personal computers were still so new that most people didn’t have them, there was a wonderful computer program known as Instant Artist. It was such a tiny program that it fit on a 3.5” floppy disk, but boy, was it powerful!
This little program did anything a human being needed to have done as far as home graphics were concerned. It made posters. It made sign-up sheets. It made invitations. It made signs to advertise your garage sale or to let the world know that your dog Phideaux had gone astray. If you had a need that graphics could fill, Instant Artist filled that need.
Instant Artist turned me into a magician. It turned me into the ward’s magician, for that matter. There were not many people in our church congregation who had personal computers, and I became the go-to person when anything needed to be done that involved graphics.
I had a laser printer and a color printer, and I even had a color copier, so the world was my oyster. I had a reputation for being able to do anything, but most of the credit should have gone to Instant Artist. And indeed, I tried to give the credit to Instant Artist, but people gave me the credit anyway. (People often give me credit for things I only organize or do part of, and I’m always trying to give the credit back.)
Instant Artist gave me quite a reputation, and it was the best little computer program in the whole, wide world. Until one sad day, the program was sold off, and the geniuses who bought Instant Artist decided it was time to “improve” it. They changed the name to Print Artist. That was fine. I can live with a name change. The rest of it — well, let’s just say things just went downhill from there.
By that time, 3.5” floppy disks were passé in the computer world. They had been replaced by CD-ROMs, which stored a whole lot more data.
The moment the idea of CD-ROMs became feasible, the Print Artist people decided it was time to take advantage of the storage space for Print Artist. And in doing so, they took a program that was beautiful in its simplicity and turned it into a monster.
Imagine, if you will, a perfectly serviceable bunny rabbit that suddenly has seventeen legs, nine thousand eyes, a human arm growing out of its back, and a toaster instead of a bunny tail. That’s what the Print Artist idiots did to a formerly wonderful and serviceable program.
You couldn’t just buy Print Artist anymore. You had to buy gonzo upgrades upon upgrades, with tons of clip art that you may or may not have any desire to load onto your computer. Quite often, the Print Artist software would come with ten or more CDs, and back in those days the hard drives of computers were tiny. I did not want to commit that much of my hard drive to clip art I never intended to use.
All I wanted was my tiny program that would fit on a 3.5” floppy disk. I did not want this behemoth. Alas, the tiny program no longer existed, and there was no equivalent for the tiny program on the market anymore.
Sadly, for all the clip art that was taking over my system, the behemoth did not do what the tiny program used to do. Once you’ve added seventeen legs, nine thousand eyes, a human arm growing out of its back, and a toaster growing where the bunny tail should be, a once-serviceable bunny rabbit can no longer function the way a bunny rabbit would otherwise function.
For all practical purposes, the bunny is no longer a bunny. And for all practical purposes, the Print Artist behemoth is no longer the program that the original Instant Artist designer created.
Fast forward a couple of decades to Amazon’s Kindle, the wonderful electronic reader that, as far as I was concerned, made paper books a thing of the past.
Kindles were perfect in every way but one — it was hard to read the text in failing light. I spent my life trying to find clip-on lights and then keep them from sliding off the Kindle. Then, of course, I had to keep them in batteries. It was a royal pain in the neck.
At long, long last, somebody designed a cover for the Kindle that had a light built into the cover. This drained the Kindle battery something fierce, but it was a great improvement over the clip-on lights. Still, it wasn’t the best solution. If only the pages could be lit from within, Kindles would be absolutely perfect.
Then the Paperwhite came out. I was ecstatic. Well, I was only marginally ecstatic, because I am a writer and I could not afford the Paperwhite. But I saw that the people who purchased the Paperwhite, by and large, loved it. I waited and waited. Eventually I decided I could wait no longer. I pounced. The Paperwhite was mine.
Oh, I tried to convince myself that the Paperwhite was not a piece of junk. After all, everyone else was raving. But when I tried to turn pages, pages didn’t turn. When I didn’t try to turn pages, they did. Screens were constantly popping up that I had not requested. The battery that allegedly lasted for a month at a time was running down in my Paperwhite twice a week.
It didn’t occur to me that I had a defective model until long after it was too late to send the defective model back. And the reason it did not occur to me that I had a defective model was that I was too busy trying to fight with features — nay, “improvements” — to the trusty old Kindle that I did not want.
I had not wanted much, mind you. All I had wanted was my old Kindle, but with backlit pages. But nooo. The new Paperwhite had obviously been designed by committee. A large committee. A huge, honking committee whose members had each wanted to be able to point to a feature and say, “Look, Ma! I did this!”
It didn’t matter whether “this” was an actual improvement. It just had to be something — anything — that the designer could point to and say, “Look, Ma! I did this!”
Fluffy, who spent his career as a software developer, says there’s a name for when people fix things that aren’t broken, adding enhancements that people do not necessarily want. It’s called “feature creep.” It causes once simple programs to become complex monsters that can only be approached after reading a 500-page user guide.
Well, in the case of Instant Artist and the Kindle Paperwhite, the features didn’t just creep. They steamrolled right over the original product, obliterating the beauty of what was there and replacing it with something that is no longer functional.
Oh yes. People who bought Print Artist in one of its dozens of subsequent iterations were no doubt satisfied with it, and you can go to Amazon today and see zillions of five-star reviews for the Paperwhite.
But I assure you, those five-star reviewers must have a lot more time on their hands than I do. When I want to retrieve a book from my e-reader, and I know the book by the author’s name, I want to do so in less than the fifteen minutes that is apparently acceptable to the readers who gave the Paperwhite five stars.
(That is not an exaggeration, and I’d go through the entire process I went through last week but I think you’d fall asleep or just click on over to Facebook.)
I may be old, but unlike those Paperwhite lovers, I at least pretend to have a life.
Sometimes people are so anxious to be able to point at something and show other people where they have touched it that it doesn’t matter whether the touching is an improvement or a detriment. “Look, Ma! I added that feature!” “Look, Ma! I changed that line in the law!” “Look, Ma! That new seat belt buckle is mine!”
Down the road, the new feature may cause a drop in sales. The new law may jeopardize the people it is supposed to protect. The new seat belt buckle may fail. But that doesn’t matter. The bottom line to some people is that their fingerprint is on the software, the law, or the buckle.
Not all change is good. Like the parent who sees the child sleeping and wants to embrace him but does not do so because that embrace will awaken him, we need to learn that sometimes the best caress is not to touch something at all. In colloquial terms, we need to learn that if something ain’t broke, we shouldn’t try to fix it.
Last week I got a gift of an Android tablet. As Fluffy was looking around at the free apps, he noticed that one of them was a Kindle app.
I wrote to the gift-giver that I was going to try out the Kindle app as a possible solution to the Paperwhite issue, and he wrote back, “I haven’t opened a Kindle in more than a year. My smartphone Kindle app and the Kindle app on my own Samsung tablet do all I need them to do. Full access to my Kindle library, so why buy more hardware from Amazon?”
There we go. Just like Print Artist people, the Amazon people are feature creeping themselves out of a customer base.
Take that, Amazon! If you give me a basic Kindle with a backlit page, I will still come crawling back to you, because I am that loyal. I remember the good times we had. Otherwise, I’m just going to join the silent army who are voting with their feet. Sayonara, Amazon!
Sometimes having too many choices is not a good thing. I think sometimes our grandparents had easier lives because they were not always bombarded with decisions. Perhaps living a simple life with a few simple pleasures should be my goal.
Now please excuse me while I add getting a simple life to my to-do list, which, of course, is here on my computer where I can get right to it.