Our software must get better

“That’s good enough, let’s move on”

Lots of things could be better (cars, buildings, candy, etc.) but we understand that the cost of pushing through to the next level is prohibitive. It might be because, as in the case of candy, the mass market just won’t pay for premium ingredients, or, in the case of buildings, the cost of retrofitting the billions of buildings in the world is just too big to fix the stuff that’s already out there.

The building doesn’t fall down, it sort of works, better than good enough, let’s move on.

But software, software is different. Consider:

1. one piece of software can be used by a billion people, no extra cost per person. Unlike candy or anything physical, it doesn’t cost more per user (not a penny more) to have more people use great software instead of settling for good software.


2. fixing software today fixes it for everyone, in the world, going forward (and for connected computers, going backward as well).

Imagine what would happen if this were true for buildings… if the efficiency and style and ambience of every building in the world could be fixed, all at once, in exchange for one investment.

Alas, software tends to be mediocre. There are a few reasons for this:

A. Lock in means that once someone has a success (and the cash flow that comes with it) there’s not much incentive to invest a lot in fixing it (fixing it looks a lot like breaking it, at least at first). Which is why Paypal has had such a miserable user interface for so long. (Do the folks at Paypal know how bad it is? Don't they care?)

B. As software gets more successful, the instinct is to hire more people to work on it (which increases complications and errors dramatically) and to be ever more conservative as well (don’t mess with what’s working).

C. Perhaps the biggest problem: In many markets, especially online, software is free. And free software built by corporations turns us from the user into the product. If you're not paying for it, after all, you must be the bait for the person who is. Which means companies spend time figuring out how to extract value once we're locked in and can't easily switch.

I’ve been developing software on and off since 1984, and empathize with the people who have to make these decisions. But software is too important to be mediocre. 

Compare Roon to iTunes (which has had countless iterations, but never seems to get better, it merely helps Apple sell more of something).

The Roon user experience is fabulous. The only reason they could launch it in the face of a free competitor is that enough people care about music. Which means that software as a service in this area has a shot for a revenue stream that can justify the investment, but even with a demonstrably better product, competing with free, with software installed by default, this is really hard work.

Or compare the heavily promoted (but awful) stamps.com to the elegant but little known alternative, Endicia. It works on the Mac, does tracking, it actually works. Better software, worth it.

Or consider the Address Book built into your Mac, a piece of software that only is used because it's free and hardwired in. It's difficult to import or export data, and it's truly slow. No one, not one person, is happy about how this software helps them work. Without a reasonable business model, though, competing with free is incredibly difficult.

When you can, insist on paying for your software. Our instinct to take the free stuff is often a bad long-term choice—it takes a committed team to keep free software worth the trust we put into it.

Marketing and the economics of an industry don't always lead to the best solution. Sometimes, we need to insist on things getting better.