The Lone Coder Reflections for the Unsung Linux Saviours
by Ken O. Burtch
Potato Chip Technology
The question is: what do you do it for? Do you do it just for the money?...Or
do you do it for the experience of doing it, the feeling that you accomplished
something, and that there was money to be made as you accomplished something.
But you were building something of value: a community in a world for the
people who worked with you, a product that people cared about, something you
could be proud of.
-- John Wells, Executive Producer of ER, from "The Company Men" Commentary
Last time I talked about how much unit testing is enough. Today I'm
looking at the flip-side of this issue.
In New York, Occupy Wall Street has every day Americans protesting the
irresponsible and arguably illegal actions of the very rich.
Thousands have gathered in the heart of the financial district of
the wealthiest nation on earth. Most
Canadians support the "Occupy" protests
(Most Canadians support 'Occupy' protests, poll finds, CTV).
However, it's hard to be supportive if you walk down to see Occupy
Toronto. St. James Park is a frequent hangout for the homeless
(the Salvation Army is just up the street). The homeless have had to
move to area churches as a few dozen of wealthy youth kicked them
out and set up their party tents. These protestors aren't sure what they are
protesting except the price of having a good time. While there's a big
"Occupy Toronto" sign, the occupiers and their motives couldn't be more
different than their American counterparts who are fighting the "1%". In
Toronto, it's 1% doing the occupying at the expense of the 99%.
As the saying goes, you can't always judge a book by its cover.
Things don't always deliver the value that they claim on the outside.
This doesn't just apply to protests. A good example is potato chips.
Companies keep shrinking the bags while keeping the price and look
the same. They hope that customers won't notice. Products that are
"greener", "portable" or "healthier" often contain less content.
Products with a "new look" often disguise smaller amounts. Food
companies hope you don't notice that you are paying more for the product.
They blame consumers who overreact to small price increases, saying that
it forces the manufacturer to be deceptive and misleading.
Potato chip companies have been doing this for years: a bag of Doritos
chips is 20% smaller than it was two years ago. The same strategy is
used for products from paper towels to Swiss Chalet quarter chicken
dinners. (Consumer Reports this month states that 25% of American fish
isn't what the fish that its labeled as, often being switched for a
cheaper species.) Eventually a company will release a "jumbo" size
which is the regular size the product used to be, tagged with a higher
(Food Inflation Kept Hidden in Tinier Bags, NY Times;
U.S. Companies Shrink Packages as Food Prices Rise, Daily Finance)
The same trends exist in software.
Every update of Skype seems to increase the amount of advertising while
offering no more useful features. What is the point when the ads crowd
out Skype's usefulness and it becomes valueless to customers?
Meanwhile, the bugs and limitations continue year after year, such as
the lack of decent icons.
Blackberry has introduced a new Apple-like App Store client with cool
graphics. This bloated store is by far the largest, most resource
hungry app I have. I had to uninstall the majority of my apps to fit
the store on the phone with no new functionality. So you can browse
all these apps tightly controlled by RIM, but you lack the resources
to actually install any of them. And the rest of the Blackberry still
looks like an old Blackberry.
What about the Playstation 3? A few years ago, I bragged about the advantages
over the XBox: Blu-ray quality, ran Linux as its O/S, the perfect Playstation
2 emulation with the Emotion chip. Sony removed the Emotion chip. Then
removed Linux-compatibility. This dumbing down of the PS/3 led to a lawsuit
because of Sony sold a product then reduced its functionality after
purchase. Sony's solution: A new user agreement that says you give up your legal
rights if they decide to to make changes
(Mandatory PS3 Update Removes Right to Join in a Class Action Lawsuit, ArsTechnica).
The Playstation 3's down to $250, but it's no longer the Linux-based,
cutting-edge machine I praised in my original article. What's
next, Sony? Remove the ability to play games?
When you buy console games in general, you only pay for part
of the game. For the rest of the game you have to pay additional fees for "bonus"
features to complete your purchase, hiding the full cost of the game. Surprise!
Perhaps I'm just getting grumpy and old but I don't like surprise
misfortunes. The world has enough misfortune as it is.
I bought a pair of pants from a quality men's store. They wore out in
6 months. A new winter jacket? Unrepairable after 4 months of normal use.
I bought a home network router. Dead under 12 months.
I yearn to get hardware that doesn't halt when you open the box and
and software that isn't downgraded the day after you buy it. Sure, they do
it with potato chips, but you aren't spending
hundreds of dollars for a bag of chips. Alas, the news reports suggest that
poor quality products in deceptive packaging is the trend for the foreseeable future.
That's one great thing about open source software. These are products that
you can judge by their cover. Totally transparent, you can try them out, or even even look
at the quality of the internal design. There are not hidden surprises.
Good software is your choice. If your a software developer,
use tools and techniques that produce a quality product. As far as you are
able, strive to release products you can be proud of. As a friend of mine used to
say regarding software: "Don't make something unless it is both made necessary and useful;
but if it is both necessary and useful, don't hesitate to make it beautiful"
(Shaker Quote, C2).
In the meantime, let the buyer beware: what's inside may not
be what's advertised.