SORT OF LIKE ENTROPY

I’ve been trying to find a word that describes the process by which an application that used to be great goes downhill. It’s sort of like entropy. But also, sort of not.

Hi-tech venture capital development was my world for more than 30 years. I retired five years ago. Now I watch the process as a consumer. It’s definitely a new angle.

Here’s how it goes. A group of smart computer jocks are hanging out in the garage one day. One of them has a brilliant idea. Another says, “Hey, you know? We could really do that. And sell it. I bet someone would give us money to build it.”

PhotoshopSo they start asking around and eventually find some rich people willing to take a risk (or a tax write-off). Start-up money!

They find affordable quarters, hire a few more people — including me. Now we’re a team. We create a fantastic product, something so forward-thinking and unique, it’s as close to perfect as an application of that kind can be.

After which:

1) They run out of money and everyone regroups — or looks for a new job

2) Against all odds, they sell the product to a couple of big customers and are in business for real.

I’ve been with a lot of start-ups. Too many.

Most of them went under. A couple made enough to keep going but not enough to thrive. A few took off and went on do great things.

Assuming success came and assuming the company only has (so far) one product — what next? How to keep customers coming back and paying more for the same product?

Upgrades.

The initial one or two new versions are free. These usually consist of bug fixes and tweaks to smooth out the interface. Eventually, though, there’s no avoiding it. You need your customers to buy a new version. And the only reason to create a new version is to generate income.

Software companies rely on upgrade income to keep alive, from Apple, to photoshop-CS6Microsoft, to the guys in the cold garage.

The eventual result of this are upgrades which add pointless bells and whistles — without improving the product. Ultimately, though, the upgrades become downgrades. The product’s functionality decreases. The application becomes bloated, overloaded with stuff no one needs or wants.

Look what happened to Microsoft Office. Word was a great text handler, but no longer is. Outlook has noticeably less functionality than it did 8 years ago and it’s harder to use.

You see it happening on WordPress as their “improved, easier blogging experience” isn’t easier and surely is no improvement. There are countless examples, all of which basically demonstrate how companies ruin their own products to create a revenue stream. And of course, also maintaining the image of a forward-moving organization.

Developers get caught between a rock and a hard place. They can’t charge customers for fixing bugs, or at least shouldn’t. And no one is going to pay them more for an unchanged application.

Leasing.

That’s how come Adobe and Microsoft are trying so hard to get us to “rent” our software rather than own it. It’s why Apple’s operating systems become obsolete before you’ve entirely unpacked your new computer.  Everyone is caught in the same loop.

“Leasing” provides a revenue stream. On the positive side, at least companies can stop making destructive “upgrades” to good products (one would hope, anyhow).

Other than leasing, how do you keep money coming in after perfecting your application? You can create ever fancier bells and whistles, but you can’t make people want them.

From the consumer’s point of view, it turns everything into an ongoing expense instead of a final purchase. We find ourselves buying a product again and again — wondering how we got suckered in. Because the latest, greatest version isn’t great. Not even as good.

For some of us, it’s a serious economic issue. We don’t have money to lease everything. We won’t have it in the future. We are stuck. There’s no positive outcome for us.

Is this “software entropy”? Or … what is it? Is there a name for this?

Author: Marilyn Armstrong

Writer, photography, blogger. Previously, technical writer. I am retired and delighted to be so. May I live long and write frequently.

16 thoughts on “SORT OF LIKE ENTROPY”

  1. How about a software company with a huge reputation that markets security software that crashes the users system. Then you call for support when they demand a fix it fee to untrash your computer. Norton Utilities is that company.

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  2. I always thought that was planned obsolescence; I watched a documentary on Henry Ford and the rise of the automobile industry and that was intrinsic to the business strategy they developed as well as a seeming contradiction–how do you get consumers to believe in your wonderful product but ‘need’ to replace it every year?

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    1. It isn’t exactly the same, though it certainly bears a family resemblance. It’s more like intentional destruction of a product. New cars ARE better than old ones in most ways. New versions of software often aren’t as good as earlier versions. The upgrades actually degrade the products. So it’s worse than obsolescence, or at least I think so. I think they might get people willing to pay them to NOT upgrade the product!

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      1. I’ve tried (being slightly a stick in the mud) to resist the constant badgering to upgrade; but everything is against that…eventually nothing works right if you don’t jump through the next hoop. Now after reading your post I understand this process a little better. Aaargh.

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        1. It’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario, both for consumers and software companies. I’m not sure how this ends, but somehow I think consumers are going to get the short straw. We usually do.

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  3. I sure agree with you! I try to avoid upgrading software for as long as I can. I stuck with Windows XP until Windows 7 was well established. Fortunately, I love Windows 7! I’m two or three releases behind on Photoshop Elements, and don’t plan on upgrading anytime soon. As for Norton Internet Security, it just seems to get better and better – on my 5 year old computer, anyhow. WordPress – well a few months back I was ready to move to a different host, but the hassle didn’t seem worth it in the end…

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    1. I bought my new computer NOW so I could stick with Windows 7 … and because the old one was sending its own death notices. I’m trying to figure out if Photoshop Elements will do the job Photoshop has always done. I’m not liking the online version at all and I don’t like the commitment. I’ve got 29 days to make a decision.

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      1. My husband has a new computer with Windows 8.1. Seems very apple-ish. I’m hoping my computer holds out until Windows 10, which apparently is more 7-ish.
        I’ve never used Photoshop, so Elements seems okay to me. If I wanted to abandon Adobe altogether, I’d put the effort into learning how to use GIMP.

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  4. My understanding is that the term entropy connotes disorder. The higher its value, the higher the level of disorder. What you are trying to put across is perhaps the Law of Diminishing Returns. Consider also the term Innovation Inertia. Firms which keep coming up with newer products and offerings can perhaps afford to let customers have the upgrades free. May be the solution lies in breakthrough offering more frequently. But that is easier said than done!

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    1. I thought entropy referred also to eventual disintegration of everything, but diminishing returns works for me, too. The solution would be if they had enough products so they didn’t have to keep milking the same cows, er, customers, to squeeze every last nickel out of them. But you are also right — much easier said than done.

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