Saturday, September 27, 2014

Unforgiveable Sins, Part I: Corporate Transgressions

Any corporation will make mistakes, some big, bad or especially galling ones. When they do, they deserve to suffer, in proportion to their offense, both through immediate financial impact, and reputation. This is important for society, because corporations are basically amoral. Within the very wide latitude of what is permitted by law, the Pavlovian reward-punishment of the marketplace is the only reliable check on corporate behavior. This is not a bad thing, it just is the nature of a for-profit corporation (and applies much of the time to not-for-profits as well--more on that in Part II).

Yes, corporations may claim to have fixed ethics and ideals, but over the long-term, those are quite changeable. They are a blend of how the corporation has traditionally acted, what the individuals who make up the organization believe, and what the corporate can get away with. The latter being the biggest factor, especially in the long-term. So the only real constraint on non-illegal corporate behavior is the opinion of the marketplace.

By the same token, just as all humans are flawed and will transgress, the same goes for organizations. It is unrealistic to think any organization can ever be without sin--especially when definition of "sin" will vary from consumer to consumer.

So while it is good and righteous when consumers and public opinion punish an organization that has done immoral/bad/harmful/unethical things, most of the time, punishment should be tempered by realism. Forgiveness can be extended based on a direct redress of the offense, of course (backtracking and refunding customers who purchased a lousy product, for example). It can also be extended based on the passage of time. Just like a prisoner is released from prison after they have "paid their debt" to society, so it may be that after buying a lousy product, and avoiding a corporation for half a decade, it is time for the consumer to give them another chance.

However, some organizational sins are so severe they can't be forgiven for a generation. Not until (and unless) the corporation has had a complete turnover in its "DNA".

I used to be a "fan" of Micro$osft (I didn't spell it with the $ back then). The company has done many, many things to lose my good favor. But two standout out as unforgivable. Both are sins of omission.

First is neglect and stagnation of the browser, once they achieved monopoly position. As much as we hate IE today, at least it has plenty of credible competition, to spur it on. Think how bad IE was when it had a near-absolute monopoly in the market.

Second is neglect of security. Even though they were the de facto platform vendor of effectively all consumer computing, M$ simply did not give a s*** about security. Didn't fit their strategic plan, didn't help their bottom line, traditionally an area filled by niche vendors, so they couldn't be bothered. And millions of consumers--consumers who were Micro$osft's customers--suffered substantially for it.

For these reasons, it is difficult for me to think well of any product Microsoft offers. Even ones that get very good press in the marketplace. I simply can't trust them.

(Ditching the bombastic, sales-myopic Steve Ballmer may prove, 20 years from now, to have been Microsoft's first step toward corporate redemption.)

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Feature: Google Calendar Agenda View with Categories/Labels

I live by the Google electronic calendar and advance email reminders. Of course I rely on it for the standard use cases of putting in appointments in the coming weeks of course. But I also use it for far-advance reminders. Like "plan for Spring break next year" or "set weekend to clean out garage next summer".

What I would like to be able to easily access is a filtered, list view of these kinds of things. The list view part is reasonably well-handled--the Google Calendar Agenda view. And there is a very obvious feature for handling the filter part--Labels[1]. You know, like Gmail has had for ages? Sadly, Calendar has no labels[2] .

I am afraid to say it, but I see Google going the way of Micro$oft...once they have captured a category and killed off all competition, they neglect it [3].

[1] This is a ironic, because I although I am a heavy user of Gmail, I almost never use labels. The one time I want them--they aren't there for me.

[2] Yes, I know there are hacks, like using a separate calendar for each label type. For certain situations those may be okay, but for what I want they are definitely hacks, I already a have a few different calendar types, so I would really rather not solve the problem this way.

 [3] Probably more accurately--if continuous improvements do not have any clear, immediate connection to furthering the advertising business model, they don't happen.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Nice When UI Designers Sweat the Details

I am constantly frustrated by the lack of thought and crafstmanship in web UIs. For decades now, many Microsoft products have put intelligence into text boxes, to allow them to do text validation. So, for instance, I can specify my line-spacing as "2 li" or "4 pt" or ".4 in". They all work. Same with Outlook reminders: "60 m", "0.5 d" and "12 h" are all valid entries in the combo box.

But web UI is usually the polar opposite.  Even really basic, obvious text-input flexibility is lacking. For instance, if you paste your phone number and it includes hyphens, that may be rejected. Conversely, other times it may be rejected without hyphens. Then there are all the helpful inputbox labels that tell you exactly the format required: "mm/dd/yyyy", for example.

So I was happy today when I noticed Gmail was smart enough  to fix a mistake I made. I had right-click copied an email address, and pasted it into the TO field in Gmail. Just as I pressed the SEND button, I noticed that the copied text string included the "mailto" tag. I expected some kind of error message to appear within the next 2 seconds, and was astounded when it didn't. I had to check the SENT folder to convince myself--sure enough, Gmail had parsed and stripped the mailto tag. Seamlessly--not only an error, not even a warning or dialog asking "Remove apparent 'mailto; tag?"