In thirty-five years of using computers I’ve learned one thing: updates will always make things worse. This week it was discovering that Android Pie, to which my shiny new Huawei P20 just auto-updated, clobbers GPS half of the time.* Last week it was finding that the little app that I use to record phone interviews no longer worked because Google in their wisdom decided that allowing me to do this represented a privacy concern.
Now I have two choices: live without tools that I need every day, or root a brand new phone, back it up to Android Oreo, and turn off all updates to prevent it from installing Pie.
Hardware and software companies have completely lost sight of the fact that end users need their devices to function, and to function consistently and reliably. At the same time that tech companies complain that users won’t do things to keep their computers secure, they’re forcing people to find ways to disable updates out of fear that allowing an update will break stuff.
That’s why my wife kept her computer on Windows 95 until the motherboard gave up the ghost in 2015. And that’s why her shiny new Windows 10 laptop is an endless source of irritation, either because the user interface is just plain horrible, or because it seems incapable of just doing routine things like connecting to WIFI.
Phones though are the worst. Every new phone has a new version of Android, along with whatever UI changes the device maker decided would improve Google’s product, plus whatever apps and “features” the manufacturer, the carrier, or Google have added without asking. Inevitably I wind up spending a week turning off things I know I won’t use, reverting others to something like “stock” Android, and, worst of all, battling notifications into submission so that I don’t have to endure constant beeps and buzzes.
Surely someone in Silicon Valley understands the concept of “workflow” and how a consistent interface makes life and work easier for everyone? Surely after decades of computer use someone has figured out that when you break the way things work you just wind up annoying people? And surely someone in the mobile phone industry has figured out that one of the biggest obstacles to getting people to upgrade their devices is the knowledge that whatever they learned about using their old phone will be of no value when they get their new one.
For several years my computers have run Mint Linux. The desktop looks like the old Windows 95 user interface, but more importantly it has stayed pretty much the same through multiple versions. Because they don’t try to “improve” the UI with every new version I know that I can install it on pretty much any PC and be using it without being forced to learn new tricks and secrets. With only a couple of exceptions I can’t think of any upgrade in years that caused a single problem.
I can’t think of another hardware or software product that can make the same claim. The cult of “change for the sake of change”, or worse “run fast and break things,” has permeated all of the tech industry and has led to a phone OS that delivers a radically different interface with every version, Google products that drop features for no apparent reason, and Facebook, a product that I can’t begin to describe as anything but a dog’s breakfast of bad ideas and convoluted interface design.
Already I find myself abandoning websites that are too much trouble to use. Whether because of paywalls, or pop-up nags, or endless load times, or just really bad page design, I can’t be bothered any more. If you can’t make it easy for me to use your site I won’t be back. I’m starting to move as much of my life as possible away from Google to services that I feel are likely to be consistent and reliable. Maybe some people like all of the ways that Google tries to “help” them, but I just find it annoying.
And I am seriously considering abandoning my smart phone for an old fashioned “feature” phone. I’m thinking that the lack of GPS and the Internet will be more than balanced by a simple, reliable, and hopefully unchanging user interface.
I’ve always been an early adopter, and have embraced tech with enthusiasm. If I’m getting this frustrated then tech companies really need to start asking how the rest of their customers are feeling. Unless something changes the backlash will be bigger than they can imagine.
* Soon after this column was published I determined that the problems were actually caused by Huawei’s insanely aggressive power settings. Disabling them doesn’t seem to have affected my battery life, and has restored apps to proper operation.