Cloud

Why the growth of SaaS means end users lose control

Controlling your computer is becoming more difficult as software vendors randomly change features and design as they see fit. James Sanders details such recent changes, and what to do about them.

Image: iStockphoto/Martin Novak

With the rise of cloud computing and software-as-a-service (SaaS), if not the ever-changing nature of the Web in general, software updates are (with few exceptions) a constant barrage of change. Optimally, these changes bring new features or substantive improvements to existing features.

In reality, such changes rearrange content unnecessarily, slowing down the end user as they navigate the modified interface. In other cases, changes can be malicious—changing user behavior can generate more profit, advertisements can be inserted into anything, or designers can conclude that the preferences of the end user are simply irrelevant.

SEE: UX battle: Enterprise software vs. consumer software (Tech Pro Research)

There is a lot to be said for design. Good design goes unnoticed, bad design is criticized, and great design receives awards—most often from other designers. Compromise is inevitable, it is not possible to be everything to everyone.

In the past, this used to be mitigated by usability testing and focus groups, before the final product was completed and published. This was in a time when people bought software in a physical store. Those days are over—and so too, apparently, are the days of design being "complete." Seemingly everything exists in a state of permanent beta, leaving end users subject to the whims of experimenting developers.

Google changes blue links to black

Considering that Google serves about 3.5 billion searches per day, even minor changes to the results page do not go unnoticed. This week, the heretofore colorful search firm arbitrarily changed search links to black for a small subset of users, which led to a predictable outbreak of complaints on social media.

The entire concept is peculiar as, after 25 years of the Web, users are basically conditioned to expect links to be blue. In 2009, Google tested forty shades of blue to see which one was best. The experiment was short-lived, with Google telling Engadget that "We're not quite sure that black is the new blue."

Apple Music deletion debacle

Complaints about Apple Music have been numerous since the service launched in June 2015, for issues such as introducing DRM conflicts and deleting existing music libraries, a complaint which gained renewed fervor this month following a blog post by James Pinkstone upon losing 122 GB of music, and the subsequent support call in which the agent indicated that the "software is functioning as intended." The issue is a conflict between related (yet distinct) cloud services—iTunes Match, iCloud Music Library, and Apple Music—and the poor interface of iTunes itself.

While unfortunate, this should not be a surprise to anyone. iTunes has been a design disaster for a decade, with Steve Streza lamenting the mess the software had become in 2007. ZDNet's Ed Bott authored two guides on de-bloating iTunes on Windows, while MacWorld's Kirk McElhearn characterized syncing iOS devices as "an ordeal" in 2014, and called iTunes 12.2 "a disaster" in 2015.

SEE: No headphone jack for iPhone 7? Let's consider the consequences (ZDNet)

The initial purpose of iTunes was to manage your music on your computer and iPod by providing a simple way to rip music from CDs. The focus has shifted greatly since then—for quite some time, Apple has designed iTunes around encouraging users to buy music through iTunes rather than rip it yourself. Now, reports claim that Apple is seeking to stop iTunes music purchases altogether in favor of encouraging users to subscribe to Apple Music.

Windows 10 insists it knows what is best for you

The reception to Windows 10 has been rather contentious, due in large part to Microsoft's tactics in forcing upgrades from prior versions. Some of it, in all fairness, is overblown. Stuffing ads in the Start menu was an early indication of Microsoft exerting their control over Windows, as was resetting user preferences in system updates, though the company insists this was a bug. Microsoft has started to walk back some of the controversial features, such as automatically sharing your Wi-Fi credentials with your contacts.

What's the solution?

Constant vigilance. You can use plug-ins such as Greasemonkey to make web pages work for you, and use alternative software from the defaults that come with Windows or Mac OS. Alternatives to iTunes exist, though if you don't use a Mac to begin with, it might be worth switching to Android—particularly if you need microSD support to store your sizable FLAC music format. Staying informed by staying up to date on what changes Microsoft will bring to Windows, or Apple will bring to iTunes, by subscribing to newsletters is an effective measure as well.

There is, naturally, an alternative. You could switch to Linux, and avoid having to fight for control of your computer. Sure, there is a learning curve, though there are support communities and local user groups. Linux may not be perfect, but it is predictable. As Microsoft becomes more tight-lipped on what is in updates, predictability is at a premium, presently.

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About James Sanders

James Sanders is a Java programmer specializing in software as a service and thin client design, and virtualizing legacy programs for modern hardware.

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