Richard MacManus: Gremlins in your gadgets

We have Roald Dahl to thank for gremlins.
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We have Roald Dahl to thank for gremlins.

OPINION: There's a motto in Silicon Valley: fail fast, fail often. It's supposed to motivate entrepreneurs to keep trying new things and to learn from their failures.

The trouble is, the motto also describes many of Silicon Valley's final products.

Who among you hasn't experienced one of the following glitches in the past few months: you can't connect to a Wifi network that worked just fine last time; your Skype call cuts out unexpectedly; you search for but can't find a recent Facebook post; you install a Windows update and encounter at least one mysterious error; your new device won't connect to bluetooth; you fail to complete a website transaction because your Java software isn't up-to-date; your TV streaming app crashes in the middle of a show.

Perhaps we should blame all these technology woes on one of Roald Dahl's literary inventions: gremlins. In Dahl's debut book in 1943, these cartoon creatures were responsible for mechanical troubles and mishaps in airplanes.

But if gremlins are at fault, they must now be in the employ of the world's largest software companies.

Many software glitches are the result of what developers call "cruft." This is when a piece of software becomes so bloated with code, often because of unnecessary new features, that it makes the core product unstable.

For me, Apple's iTunes is the most egregious example of software that has accumulated cruft over time.

iTunes was released in January, 2001. Since then, it's gone from a simple music player to a complicated app with multiple functions. In the words of Wikipedia, iTunes is now "a sophisticated multimedia content manager, hardware synchronisation manager and e-commerce platform."

Which is exactly the problem. Because iTunes tries to do so many different things now, many bugs have crept into the music player over time.

The worst was a couple of years ago, when Apple introduced a Spotify streaming competitor called Apple Music. When I enabled a trial of the new feature, I discovered to my dismay that it immediately corrupted my entire iTunes music collection.

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To this day, iTunes has lingering frustrations – especially with its core music management function. Sometimes when I import a new CD or buy a digital album, the cover art is missing or the album gets splintered into different artists, or something else minor but annoying.

Ironically, Apple just announced that it is removing a major feature from iTunes: the App Store will now only be available on iOS devices. But I had to laugh at Apple's claim that "the new iTunes focuses on music, movies, TV shows, podcasts, and audiobooks." Oh, is that all?

It's not just Apple or Microsoft or Oracle (the current owner of Java) that are afflicted by gremlins. These pesky creatures are rife in all the major tech players of today.

Take Google, for instance. Of all companies, you'd expect Google to have efficient software systems. But just try running more than one Gmail account to see how often you encounter frustrating tech issues. Or try syncing Google Calendar with a desktop app, like Microsoft Outlook or Apple Calendar. It's never as seamless as it ought to be.

This may come as a shock, but sometimes tech failures are deliberate on the part of big companies.

Whenever I search for an old post on my Facebook profile, I have trouble finding it. Sometimes I never find it. That's because Facebook has deliberately limited its search functionality. Why would it do that? Because Facebook wants me to stay focused on the present – or "real-time" as they call it in the industry.

Other than the "On This Day" nostalgia prompts, which are only there because they're apt to generate new shares, Facebook doesn't want you messing around in your personal archive. It wants you to repeatedly refresh your news feed, because that presents more advertising opportunities. It also prompts you to discover (and share) new content.

Twitter has made a different kind of design choice to keep you refreshing your main feed. While the search functionality in Twitter is adequate, the company has purposefully neglected certain filtering mechanisms that would make for a better user experience.

Lists shoudl have been a wonderful feature of Twitter, because they enable you to categorise people and topics. I have a Twitter list for the kiwi technology people I follow, for example. And while I can still put lists into Tweetdeck, the company's desktop app, the act of creating and maintaining those lists has been made needlessly difficult.

The fact is, Twitter made a business decision to de-emphasise lists and make them hard to manage. As with Facebook, the reason is simply that Twitter wants to keep you looped into the full firehose news feed. That way it keeps you refreshing, so you see more of its ads.

It's a sad state of affairs. Because until big companies address their cruft problems and make better design choices for their users, I'm afraid that gremlins will be around to bug us for a long time yet.

Let us know your favourite, or most frustrating, gremlin story in the comments.

 - Stuff

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