DEVELOPING AN IDEA – Marilyn Armstrong

Develop – from Fandango’s One Word Challenge

Garry and I have had this particular conversation often. For him, writing is a developmental process. He has to “see” the entire post, or at the very least, he has to see the beginning and a hint of where it is going before he can start writing.

As far as I can tell, for blog writing anyway, I don’t develop anything. I get a little “bing” in my brain and I start writing. If, for some reason — like it’s the middle of the night or I’m cooking or something I really can’t stop — I try desperately to hang onto the tweak of an idea until I get my fingers on a keyboard.

When I was writing manuals for software and hardware, that was an entirely different story. I had to see in my mind the entire process, from the introduction to the final indices. While I didn’t use 3X5 cards (I never quite got “into” the whole card thing), I did write a preliminary table of contents — subject to massive changes when I got my hands on the product and realized the engineers had no idea how the product would be used.

I excused them for not knowing because while they understood what the software would do,  they had no interest in users.

I wanted to know how people would make it work and it was my job to help them do that. How they would interface with it. What graphics they would need. When they would want panels of information. When they need “instant” data — such as press “CTL D” for valid entries. And when they would need extensive background data.

It all depended on who was going to be using the product. Was it going to be a civilian who wasn’t entirely sure how the mouse worked? Or an engineer using this software to create new software for a new product. Two very different species of users.

Surely the engineer would not need an explanation of how to use a mouse or turn on the computer.

The hardest manual to develop was when the manual would be used by civilian and experienced people. Then you had to write for the least experienced user. Because someone who already knew the information could skip it and move on, but someone who was clueless would be grateful it was there.

A badly written manual — and these days they are all badly written because they are generated from developer’s notes and not actually “written” at all — can effectively confuse anyone. I remember one manual which used symbols — probably an early version of emojis — instead of text. Problem?

There were a lot of those tiny little symbols and if you didn’t have good closeup vision (anyone over 40 knows what I mean), it was amazingly hard to tell one from the other.

There were so many. You needed a glossary of symbols just to know what you were looking at. Mind you, this was a beautifully designed manual — written by (you guessed it) a designer. Her goal was to make it look great, so it was gorgeous. Useless, but pretty.

I didn’t get the job of writing it, but I got the call to come in and repair the disaster. I made a lot more money than I would have had I been given the job in the first place.

Probably, all of this explains why fiction is a big problem for me. Good fiction — even flash fiction — requires at least a minimal level of development. From beginning to conclusion, you need to see your way through the story to the end.

I write really good non-fiction. I write amazing instructions when I am trying. The rest of the time? I unwind ideas with a lot of diversions because that’s the way I talk. A story needs to roll out and much of its magic are the words themselves, the music they make. That kind of music doesn’t require structure or development. It is a feeling, a sense, a kind of magic, and beautiful words.

These days, in retirement, I don’t develop, plan, or structure. I write and what comes out is the whole of it.


Note: I do not have a single copy of any book I wrote in hard copy. I think I dumped them when I retired. I wish I’d saved one or two. But if I get desperate, I have a couple as documents, though I have a feeling they are in a format I can’t access anymore.

DON’T LET THEM NEAR A COMPUTER

Today, ignoring everything going on in the world, the Daily Prompt is “Five a DayYou’ve being exiled to a private island, and your captors will only supply you with five foods. What do you pick?

It’s a pretty dull prompt. Unlikely to inspire anyone. Trivial. Not funny. Dull, flat, and forlorn. So, instead, I’m going to tell you a true story. The names have been not been changed to protect the guilty.

Just before Christmas this past year, I treated myself to a long-deferred gift: a premium theme. It is/was not WordPress’s most expensive theme. At $49, it was on the low-end, but it was the first one I liked enough to consider buying.

It wasn’t cutesy. Blogly is tidy, squared off. Black on white text, with a choice of background colors. Flexible layout. Many post styles (which, it turned out, never worked).

A left-hand sidebar for widgets. Pictures feel cramped when hedged in by a right-hand sidebar.

Looks good, doesn't it? Caveat emptor!!
Looks good, doesn’t it? Caveat emptor!!

The more I looked at it, the better I liked it. I gave it several test runs. Finally, I bought it. I figured, hey, I’m a blogger. I can have a nice theme. It’s a one-time purchase I can use forever.

It turned out that forever was not long. In January, WordPress decided including an “Edit” link in the “My Sites” drop-down menu would ruin their design. This made no sense. Regardless of any other consideration, the ability to conveniently edit your blog is critical for all of us.

It was particularly important to me, because Blogly, unlike most themes, had no built-in “edit” link. Without its own link — and after removing the Edit function of the drop-down menu — making even a simple correction became nearly impossible. I was not the only one who got upset. A lot of furious bloggers later, WordPress restored the edit function to the “My Sites” menu.

But — they weren’t through messing with me. They decided to “fix” Blogly because, they explained, it should have its own internal edit link. All themes should have an edit link. So the talented development team (they keep telling me how great they are) put an edit link in Blogly. Not where it belongs, in individual posts, but only when you are looking at posts in “home” and scrolling. So if you had an individual post open to read it, there was still no edit link. I consoled myself that at least they’d restored the link on the drop-down.

Thing is, half the things it says it does don't work. But you won't know that until you already own it. There's only so much you can test in their trial mode.
Thing is, half the things it says it does don’t work. But you won’t know that until you already own it. There’s only so much you can test in their trial mode.

Then they did something else to Blogly. I don’t know what they did, or any idea why , but suddenly, when you clicked a comment, you went to the comment. The rest of the post — the rest of the site — became inaccessible.

You could not scroll up past the start of comments. Getting home was daunting. Complaints from readers poured in. I checked the function in Safari. IE. Chrome. I checked on my laptop, desktop, Kindle and iPad. I had the same problems across all platforms and browsers.

Blogly was dead. I could not re-size graphics. Text got weird. I was never sure what margins I would get — or what size titles would be. So many issues. A couple of nights ago, when all my text got pushed to the far right into an ugly narrow column with pictures glued together in a solid lump, I gave up.

I was pissed. The next time the annoying “How can we help you” box popped up, I asked for my money back. Barring that, I suggested they let me select a different theme that actually worked.

They said it was too late to get my money back -- you only have 30 
days to change your mind.

I pointed out that I hadn’t changed my mind. They had trashed my theme. They broke it and they owed me. They called in the infamous “Happiness engineering” development team. They were sure it would be a simple fix. Not.

Today I got my money back. Apparently it was not simple.

The good news? They did the right thing. Somewhere, somehow, someone in WordPress stopped spouting the party line and acted like a professional.

The bad news? How could this mess happen? And why are they still offering the theme for sale?

It was not always like this. Those of us who have been blogging on WordPress for more than a few months remember when it was a happy place with support, encouragement, and sometimes, inspiration.

They’ve taken all the good stuff away and left us with warmed over prompts and what has got to be the most incompetent crew of developers and customer disservice people anywhere. They are worse than my cable company and I don’t say that lightly.

It doesn’t have to be this way. They have taken a good thing and are destroying it, piece by piece. Bad choices, a determination to create a platform for a market that doesn’t exist. Despite their firm belief that the future of blogging is on small devices, it’s not true. People may view blogs on small devices, but no one writes or creates them that way. All of us use a computer. With a keyboard, mouse, or other pointing device.

The success of WordPress depends on having bloggers who attract readers. That means content creators. Writers, photographers, artists. Chefs, craftspeople. All if whom need professional tools to do their thing — and that thing is never going to be done on a phone or tablet.

We are their customers. We generate revenue for WordPress in exchange for a platform. At which WordPress keeps chipping, making it harder and harder to do what we do. Making it easier to view blogs on cell phones while taking away critical tools bloggers need to produce content is stupid. Short-sighted. It will eventually bring down the house.

So I say, send them all to their favorite desert island. Give them just five foods to eat forever. Most important, don’t let them near a computer.

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?

Technology: Not just cool toys

These days every time I read an article in ZDNet or any of the techno-blogs, they are casually talking about getting rid of the Windows desktop and making basic software subscription-based, something that will benefit the corporate bottom lines of suppliers of software, but which will hurt millions upon millions of users. They talk as if  subscriptions are no big deal. It may not be a big deal for them, but it’s a big deal to me and possibly, a lot of you too.

SnapIt-77Subscriptions are much more expensive than buying software, installing it and updating only when you really need a new version. Let’s look at a non-MS example. I have a license for Photoshop. This is expensive software that I need to be a serious amateur photographer. I do NOT make money at photography, but I love it, am pretty good at it and there isn’t any product on the market that comes near Photoshop in terms of what it can do and how well it does it. So, I decided to upgrade from CS5 to CS6. Previously, this has involved calling Adobe, giving my serial number and member ID, then paying them $200 plus shipping. They send me a DVD and we are done for the next few years.

This time, I spent over an hour on the phone explaining, over and over, that $49 per month to subscribe to Photoshop when I live on a fixed retirement income is impossible. That’s just about $600 a year for Photoshop. I don’t have that kind money to spend. Nor will I ever have it because that’s the meaning of “fixed income.” It means that the amount never goes up. Ever. You are lucky if it doesn’t go away, but you can be absolutely certain it will never be more.

Millions of people live on fixed incomes and many more survive on minimal incomes, yet they need computers and software. Students, retirees, disabled people and unemployed people trying to find work are among those millions. People whose incomes are not in the 6 digit realm, like teachers, policeman, firefighters. The clerks in your bank and the guy who fixes your car aren’t nailing down big figure salaries.

Computers are basic tools these days. You can’t apply for a job without a computer. You can’t submit a manuscript for publication or even try to find a publisher without a computer. Computers and electronic information and money transfer is basic to modern life everywhere on earth. An internet connection is essential. It is not less important to the elderly, retired, or to those with disabilities. To a disabled person, that high-speed connection is the difference between a life worth living and a living death.

SnapIt-78

In the real world, many people … probably MOST people …. don’t have much (or any) slack in their budgets. They aren’t going to be able to pay for monthly subscriptions for software. I don’t want anyone to tell me about “free” apps.  Unless someone makes a lot more apps that do a lot more a lot better than the ones I’ve seen so far, there is no way they will replace the applications we use.  The developers and marketing wonks who tell us we can get an app for that don’t use those apps to do their own work. I guarantee they are using sturdy installed applications. I’ll bet they aren’t storing it all in a cloud either, that they have back up drives and servers to protect data and keep it under their own control. What a bunch of hypocrites these people are. How I resent how they toy with my life.

In one way or another over the past few years, I have been informed that being old and living on short money means I don’t need Photoshop. I don’t need Outlook. I don’t need cable television. I don’t need books. I don’t need email. I don’t need anything but generic medications and minimal health care. I should be grateful that I have food and a roof over my head. I don’t need a Kindle, a computer or a camera. I can buy my clothing second-hand, scrounge for medication. Whatever people with somewhat high incomes deem necessary for themselves is not necessary for me. Apparently when I retired — or in my case became disabled, life being neither fair nor predictable — I cashed in my rights to everything other than life itself and I’m not sure I’m entitled to that, either.

I have long known that corporation were heartless, but these computer guys have no moral compass either. Zilch. They have no idea why they do what they do, that software has a purpose. It isn’t an end in itself. It is intended to solve real problems for living human beings. It’s not just cool toys to play with or a way for them to make a good living.

These products and tools are important to users. Critical. The market for technology is not those who invent it. The market is everyone: people supporting families, struggling to feed a family on an income too small for the purpose. All the folks trying to survive hard times, to improve their living conditions, to get by with very little are the real end-users for all of this stuff. To make it inaccessible to any but the well-to-do is the equivalent of turning off our electricity and water and has much the same effect. Computers and software are not luxuries and haven’t been for years.

Having tools to make pictures, keep complicated medical and study schedules and many more life functions are not optional extras. Corporations, big software companies like Microsoft and Adobe, our so-called Congress, insurance companies are all playing with our lives. We don’t  matter at all except as a source of income for them.

SnapIt-79As for ZDNet’s contention that the corporate world will have to accept Windows 8 (the implication being that they have no choice in the matter), I have a news flash.  I’ve recently been visiting companies with whom I’ve worked in the past. They are switching to Macs. Entire companies are dropping Windows. Small companies right now because they aren’t as heavily invested in an operating system, but small organizations are the bellwethers for the big trends that follow. These groups are doing their development on Unix or Linux boxes — which is not new because they have been using them for development for years — and everything else on Macs.

Why I asked? Because they won’t touch Windows 8. They don’t like it. They won’t buy it. Just a little reality check for anyone listening. You cannot force people to adopt things they do not like, no matter how big and powerful you think you are. When you stop listening to your customers, your users, the people who made you big in the first place, you are likely to discover as so many others have before you that the world needs you a lot less than you thought. Where’s DEC? Where’s Wang? Where’s RCA? Westinghouse? They’ve either disappeared or been absorbed to become nothing more than a logo and a memory.

The business world is ripe for the plucking. They want an operating system that will run familiar applications as Windows did. Nature and business abhor a vacuum. I bet they are already circling. Not just Mac, but many others.

Earth to ZDNet: there is life on the planet! You might want to get back in touch with it.