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If it ain’t broke…

Our intrepid columnist now has a year-long contract working on Web documentation systems for a huge technology company. Although he can’t say which one it is, he sure has plenty of other column fodder.

Readers who have been following the continuing saga of my unemployment might be interested in this bit of news: I now have a year-long contract working on Web documentation systems for a huge technology company.

My contract prevents me from revealing much about my job to anyone. I’m not even sure I can publish the name of the company. Just to be on the safe side, I’ll use hints instead.

Hint #1: The company’s initials inspired the name of the computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Hint #2: It’s the only technology company that sells components or whole systems for every kind of computing environment–from handhelds to mainframes.

The good news is, I now have daily column fodder. The bad news is, I can’t talk about most of it. Still, I already have two nuggets that I can publish.

The first deals with how I landed the job in the first place–the grapevine. While dozens of recruiters called everyone with a pulse about the positions, only a handful of us were hired. In my case, I can thank the fact that two of my former students, a former intern, and his spouse all work here. And three of them work in my department. I doubt I would have been hired without these folks putting in a good word for me. I’ve been away from academia for a long time. Still, the people I helped out in some small way nine years ago returned the favor. You never know when you will need help in the future, and from whom. So help as many people as you can in any way that you can. And keep in touch with those you help.

The second nugget deals with one of the tools I use on the job. This company believes in eating its own cooking, as the saying goes. No, this doesn’t mean we are required to eat at the cafeteria (though the excellent salad bar does my waistline a lot of good). What it means is that most of the tools I use were built in-house. But we occasionally need to license an outside tool for a specific use. One such tool is Allaire HomeSite, an HTML editor that does a pretty good job on the whole, but has lots of annoying quirks.

Before I get into critiquing the tool, let me lay some groundwork. I have long held that there is a limit to the number of features you can squeeze into a software package. Beyond this limit, adding features actually makes the software worse. The most common example is Microsoft Word. It took a few revisions to get it right, but a lot of folks think the software peaked at version 5.1 for the Macintosh, which was released in the mid 1990s. It was so popular that you can still get the latest and greatest version to look and behave exactly like 5.1.

While Microsoft added tons of features to Word since 5.1, the only really useful one is inline editing–the feature that marks spelling and grammar mistakes while you type. I have to turn off most of the AutoCorrect features because they often make things worse. And I have zero patience for drag-and-drop editing. Anyone who can’t press a couple of quick keys while cutting and pasting needs more help than a word processor can provide. In short, most of Word’s newer features actually make the software harder to use, not easier.

Beyond usability, adding features often makes software a lot buggier as well. The critical stage in word processor history came when WordPerfect surpassed the limit of useful features and became a general protection fault factory. At that point, Word was actually elegant and bug-free. This was when everyone switched to Word. Microsoft has been able to avoid bugs in Word, for the most part, because of integrated code. But lots of other software vendors have needed to do drastic things to add features without affecting stability.

Jasc Software, for example, had to completely re-architect Paint Shop Pro between versions 7 and 8 because it couldn’t add more features without affecting software stability. The code just got too complex. I suspect this is what happened to WordPerfect, but they refused to start over because it’s just too painful. Jasc lost two years of momentum because of its decision. On the plus side, the decision helped the company avoid the fate of WordPerfect.

The inherent problem with commercial software is the release cycle. Software companies need to be aggressive with their releases in order to keep revenues up. Sales alone won’t keep them going; they need upgrades as well. Hence, Microsoft needs to upgrade its Office cash cow annually despite the fact that the software ran out of useful new features years ago. Most software companies either die of starvation (not releasing enough upgrades) or over-consumption (releasing too many upgrades and losing users to more elegant and less bloated competitors). Either way, software companies face certain death, unless they can get large-scale corporate buy-in (e.g., Quark) or continually buy into new markets (Adobe) or both (Microsoft).

Now back to HomeSite. I started coding HTML before editors existed. Since then, I have used a lot of HTML editors–BBEdit, PageMill, FrontPage, Dreamweaver, GoLive, etc. Perhaps because I have really low expectations (a simple text editor will do for me), I tend to evaluate HTML editors based more on usability and stability than on features. While HomeSite is very good with certain features (such as validating), it suffers from what I call featuritis–I have to turn off a lot of the automatic stuff if I want to be productive.

My pet peeve is its particularly sensitive drag-and-drop editing feature, which you can’t turn off. Often simply placing the cursor to edit a document results in a chunk of selected code ending up in the middle of another line. The only recourse is to Control-Z and try again. They make it difficult to do the most basic thing (placing the cursor) in order to include a feature that no one uses, drag-and-drop editing. Allaire probably added this “feature” because it ran out of useful features to add and had to upgrade or die.

In comparison, I love the tools designed to do one thing well and nothing else. Most companies don’t have the luxury of building their own proprietary tools. But those that do can really enhance their employees’ productivity. And my computer sure likes the lack of bloatware–it hasn’t crashed since I started. It turns out that both my computer and I have developed more refined appetites since starting work here.

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