TV tales and software fails

by Jono Bacon

People are a funny breed. Imagine the scenario. You go out and buy a huge widescreen TV and spend quite a bit of money on it. Although not critical to your life, the TV is critical to your relaxation time, and you look forward to many an hour parked in front of the unwieldy box, staring at The Simpsons with your feet up. All is going well until one day the TV goes on the blink. The infernal device decides to flicker on and off and produce sounds to remind you that it is in no way, shape or form, happy. You get up, contort your body around the back of the hulking great home entertainment unit and randomly touch the back of the TV in a vain attempt to make the disenchanted box work. After an hour of sweating profusely and hurling a vast and impressive range of expletives at the device, you fall back against the sofa, defeated. Damn.


After a few moments of gutting defeat at the hands of the TV, the next step is to get on the phone and share your grievances with the store that you bought the TV from. It is just your luck that the unlucky recipient of your anger is some kind of pre-pubescent individual who has risen from the heights of burger monkey to store assistant. Although demonstrating good intentions, the fury inside you demands that said burger monkey aficionado puts you in touch with someone in authority; someone who can make heads roll, someone who can compensate you fully. The overly chirpy store manager comes on the line, you complain rigidly yet politely, and before you know it you have an engineer booked to arrive at your house anytime between now and the rest of eternity. A specific time cannot be booked as this would require an element of planning and organisation, and you put the phone down content that something is happening to resolve the problem, but frustrated that you have to wait three days to get the TV looked at and that you have to pester your boss to let you have yet another day off work.


The engineer pops round and crouches behind the TV. Using a combination of screwdrivers and brute force, various items are tapped with the handle of the screwdriver as the engineer listens to the innards of the TV, almost expecting the infernal box to shriek with pain. With a puzzled look on his face, he returns to his small white van, brings back thin air and magically manages to fix the TV. All is well with the world, and the engineer leaves having been lambasted with praise from a happy punter in the knowledge that The Simpsons will be returning to the house that evening. All is great with the world...


...for three days. The TV flickers some more, you call the shop, you speak to the burger monkey and demand to speak to the chirpy manager again. Your rage builds and the nice-overkill from the manager does nothing for reducing your fury that his company has carefully developed an unrelentingly incompetent portfolio of failure. The engineer comes out, the screwdriver handle is tapped, but the TV fails to come back to life. The unit is sent back to the factory and you are assured that a replacement model will be sent out if it cannot be fixed. This shallow promise does nothing to avert your eyes from the likelihood that it will be sent back and fail again. How many days can you take off work? How much of this parody can you handle?


It is an unfortunate fact that this sorry story is all true. What is interesting however is that we refuse to accept inferior service from products such as electrical goods, furniture, appliances and other physical objects, but we often take baffling levels of incompetent service from software tools and applications. Why is this? Is it because software is considered to be different to a physical product, is it because the satisfaction level of hardware and software is different, or is it because there is nothing you can do about software quality, so you just put up with it?


Software as a product


The main issue here is how you perceive software as a product. In the eyes of some, software is no different to your TV, washing machine, watch or anything else. To others, software is not a product but merely a component of another product; your computer. For many people, the way they swing with their perception of software as a product could possibly be affected by whether they consider non-physical items as a legitimate and responsible product. Software is not physical (ignoring disks/packaging), and it does require a computer to run. This physical nature of the product could be one of the reasons why many people see it in a different light. If so, how exactly is software a categorised?


I think a major issue in why people see software in a different way to other things is that they cannot do anything about it. I don't want to get into any kind of Microsoft bashing routine (mainly because I don't inherently dislike Microsoft), but many people do struggle with Windows and its stability issues. I suspect that if you were to ask the average Joe Bloggs on the street about software and what they do when it breaks, most would shrug their shoulders chalk their problems down to experience and that most software fails to work. For some, Microsoft may be too large an organisation to take on, and if there is a sense that software is not filed in the same category as other products, this may also dissuade the possibility of gritting your teeth and unleashing the complaints on the phone


There are also two other fundamental issues that can put someone off complaining about software. Firstly, computers seem like small boxes of black magic to many people. Behind the whirring case, people just don't know what goes on and simply don't want to know. The fear of breaking the computer is a common predicament. This fear is not only bolstered by the conscious goal of not having to learn any more about the computer than is absolutely necessary, but the general discomfort of possibly loosing all of your data due to an accident, puts users in a position where a computer feels like a minefield. Uncomfortable as it may be, the busy lives we lead and the sheer disinterest of the non-geek computer users to learn anything that is vaguely technical is a bigger and more unwieldy proposition than feeling a little cagey about using the computer.


The second reason why software is perceived differently is also because it can leap into your life in so many different ways. Some people find it installed on the new computer they purchase, some people have the local computer genius install it for them, some people take their computers to a shop to have it installed, some people try to install it themselves, and I am sure there are many other ways in which people find themselves sat in front of a screen with a mouse. This non-centralised method of getting software you already feel unsure about adds yet another layer of uncertainty when getting on the phone to shout at the poor soul on the end of the phone at Microsoft.


Place your bets...no wins


So, the outlook is bleak. If you take software that people often complain about not working, use the software in a way that you don't really understand how it works, and get the software from any one of a thousand places, the resultant effect is a user who feels dissatisfied and insecure about how their computer works. This probably doesn't affect you (readers of the O'Reilly Network and probable IT people) and me (rambler and person in the IT industry) as we have the luxury of knowing better. I don't want to learn about being a mechanic just to drive a car, and I am sure the poor souls out there plagued with these software problems don't want to be a programmer just to use a computer.


The conclusion to this tale is that there is no real solution, but that does not mean we cannot make the situation better. Most Operating System software needs to work on a huge variety of different pieces of hardware and different configurations, and although an OS cannot necessarily hit the mark every time, we have all seen different levels of achievement for the wide variety of different free and commercial OS's. although I have confidence in Linux being the better contender in the stability sweepstakes, even within the Linux world there is a large degree of animosity from the users perspective of who is responsible. This animosity could be considered worse than with Windows; Microsoft are the only creator of windows, so at least you know where to point your finger.


The difference of course is that although you can't point your finger at any single company in the Linux world, you do have the ability to have a skilled person fix the problem. When I had the problem with the TV discussed earlier, if I could pay someone a fee to come out and rewire the bit of the TV that was so obviously foo-bared, I would have jumped at the chance. This is the reason why Open Source is the right path to move along, and I am sure that we can slowly restore at least someof this lost faith in software.

What do you think? Utter rubbish or vaguely true? Scribe your thoughts here...


2 Comments

guet2
2004-11-09 07:03:55
argh
It's losing, not loosing.


Have you been reading too much Slashdot?

jwenting
2004-11-09 08:38:18
but call who to fix what?
Your analogy would be correct if you added:
"pay someone to fix the broken part after I'd spent a lot of time (and/or money hiring consultants) to find out exactly what the problem was and in which part of the TV it could be found".


When someone asks for help on a Linux (or any other product for that matter) helpline with the same wording as the typical TV repairman gets his help request (in other words, the entire report reads "it doesn't work"...) he tells the asker to "RTFM" (in fact on most Linux support groups that's the standard question to any question, including questions on where to find the manual...).
The one time I got a more or less usable reply from such a group it was that unless I became a paying sponsor of the group I could wait forever for the fix to my problem because noone was interested in fixing it (they'd known about it for months).
In that helpdesks for commercial products (like Windows) are a lot better because you are indeed a paying customer asking for assistance (if you didn't use a pirated version of the product of course).


At least with software you get the chance (ever more automated, as displayed by Windows Update and now mimmicked in ever more Linux distros) to install product updates to problems others experienced before you experience them yourself (and even problems that might at some point develop). With a TV you're out of luck, there is no (usually) free regular program in which a maintenance man visits every single person who owns the model once a week and replaces a condensor here and a microchip there with an improved version.