Wednesday 8 July 2009

The Best Tool for the Job

One of the nice things about growing up around (almost exclusively) men who were master mechanics, carpenters or other such highly skilled tradesmen was that I developed an appreciation both for "the best tool for the job at hand" and "making do with what's available" — and whichever of these applied, accomplishing the task at hand to the best of anyone's ability.

As I've progressed through my software and Web career, I've become highly opinionated about the tools I use, just like any other experienced software craftsperson I've ever known. You and I might use different tools to accomplish what functionally is the same task, but so long as we each have practical, experiential bases for those preferences, we should just go ahead and get what needs doing done. (There's an argument in there for open standards as a requisite for that to happen, but that's another post.)

Too many people who should know better have religious-level devotion to or hostility towards certain companies and/or products. Yes, that includes me; I know I've said some pretty inflammatory things, usually when I felt someone was expressing a religious belief masked as a technical opinion. No doubt they've felt the same about me and any others who were incautious enough to oppose their evangelism (or reactionism, depending on the circumstances). In general, it should be pretty evident to everyone with a personal or professional involvement in IT or personal electronics that trends are driven as much by "what I say three times is true!" as what actually can be shown to be true. That's how mediocre-at-best products become "industry Leaders"; inertia and close-mindedness set in, reinforced by a well-funded, continuous and strident marketing/branding campaign.

I was having a discussion about this online recently, with a former associate who's long had me pegged as an ABMer ("Anything but Microsoft"). I can understand how he formed that opinion; I've long complained about the (innumerable) defects in the "market-leading" operating system, and about how slowly progress has been made in cleaning up the most egregious faults (such as security). But I've also worked at Microsoft in Redmond — three different times — and I've always been impressed by the number of truly gifted people working there. They've had their triumphs and tragedies (anyone used Microsoft Bob lately?). They've had to deal with widely differing process and management effectiveness as they transfer between or liaise with different groups. They've ignored a lot of what has been done outside the company, but they've also created some amazing things inside; too many of which unfortunately never make it into public products.

And the quality of their work product varies as much as any of the factors that go into it. Cases in point: compare, say, Windows Vista with Windows Mobile or the XBox; compare Microsoft Outlook (forever known as "Lookout!" to security/admin people) with Entourage; compare Word for Windows to Word for the Mac — what I understand is a completely different code base (and visibly so) that "just happens" to be able to flawlessly read and write documents shared with Word for Windows.

I also reread a blog post I wrote last December where I detailed the issues I was starting to have with Apple's own Mail app for the Mac. I have a mail store that's hovered somewhere above 2 GB for the last year. I receive 100-200 legitimate emails per day (and up to 700 spams). I presently have over 230 filtering rules defined for how to handle all that mail. Those rules have been built up over the last five years or so — first using Mozilla Thunderbird, then Apple's, and now a new system; a progression that also speaks eloquently about the value of open standards. I have never, to my knowledge, lost a saved message whilst transferring from one package to its successor. The few hiccups each transition has had with filtering rules have all been relatively easy to find and fix, with the newest app making that process breathtakingly simple.

The new mail app? As you've no doubt guessed, Microsoft Entourage. It, like every other Mac app I've ever used, Just Works as expected (at least until you get out to the far, bleeding edges). If Microsoft made Windows and Office for Windows as well as they make Entourage (and the rest of their Office:Mac products), they really wouldn't have to worry about competition — and they'd richly deserve that. The market-friendly price for their Mac product (where their major, worthy competitor sells for US$79) is just icing on the cake.

I don't hate Microsoft. I just wish they would stick to what they do as well or better than anyone else, and leave the crappy products that can never be anything but hypersonic train wrecks — like Windows and Internet Exploder. I wish that ever more fervently every time I'm asked to help some hapless Windows usee fix "why my computer doesn't work". That would also make Microsoft's long-suffering stockholders — including current employees, former employees and myself, among others — feel a lot better.

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