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The upgrade that wasn't

This is a story about a vertical market application that was running on a SCO system. Yes, that SCO.. the one that looks like it is just about out of business now and, in the minds of many of us, is reaping just what they deserved. That SCO.

I know about this particular application because I have a customer who uses it. Over the past few years I've helped them out with various SCO and Linux issues (they have a Kerio Mailserver running on Suse also) and yes, even some Microsoft Windows issues. I know the owner pretty well; he's a really nice, hard working guy and absolutely no fool when it comes to technology.

About a year ago my customer told me he was going to have to switch to Windows. He didn't like it, but his application vendor told him that they would no longer upgrade the Unix version and that new features he really wanted would only be in the Microsoft version. I had written some helper programs that had provided some of the new features he needed, but I couldn't integrate them fully with the application. He really would be better off with the upgraded application, so he bit the bullet and told them to go ahead.

This required a $5,000 Windows Domain Controller. Of course I protested that this was not absolutely necessary and referred him to my "Do you really need a domain controller?". However, I also warned him that if he did not provide their "recommended environment", they'd be apt to use his non-compliance as an excuse for any glitch that came up.. often its better to just go along to get along..

Of course there was also a six or seven thousand dollar software upgrade which included the application vendor coming out and doing installation and training. Before they got to that, though, there were problems with the domain controller: I don't remember whether it was bad hardware or flaky drivers, but it caused a fair amount of grief immediately - added to the normal confusion involved in switching Windows users from a peer to peer environment. But that got fixed, and the installation and training people eventually showed up, did their thing, transferred data, and started the training sessions.

This went badly.

As my customer explained it, on the old Unix system they were all accustomed to using Facetterm and had eight Facet windows open for each user - this let them look up related information extremely quickly. There's nothing quicker than a Ctrl-W, especially when someone has been using the system for a while and knows exactly what window they want. Watching an experienced user flash through text windows at incredible speeds should make anyone realize that point and click is hopelessly inefficient and slow.. and of course the users complained. More annoying was that they couldn't have eight windows anymore - as cluttered and difficult as it would have been to use them in Windows, the sad fact was that their desktop hardware didn't have enough muscle to open more than a handful.. the application vendor suggested buying new desktops with lots of RAM.

The owner wasn't happy. The users weren't happy. Most importantly, the owner's wife wasn't happy and she was the one responsible for most of the really important input. However, everyone agreed to gamely "give it a chance" - they'd keep up entering data in the old SCO system and "play" with the new system. The application vendor probably assured them that their comfort level would grow with experience.

It didn't.

I talked with my customer this morning. He told me that he'd given up, because if his wife had to use the whiz-bang Windows system, she'd quit. That wouldn't be good for the business or his home-life, so he is throwing away his upgrade investment. Well, not entirely: his mailserver could use a hardware boost, so we talked about overwriting Windows 2003 Server with Suse or Fedora - the hardware is way beyond what he'd ever need for a mail and web server, but using 20% of it is better than not using it at all..

Am I happy he's back on SCO? No, I'd rather he were on a Linux box, but that's not possible. His application vendor is moving on with Windows, telling him that they will be soon rewriting that using Microsoft .NET (and thus binding themselves even more irrevocably to Microsoft technologies). For the moment they will still somewhat reluctantly support the Unix version.. when that stops, my customer says he may limp along without support if he can.. or he'll have to look for other software or spend that upgrade money all over again.

I wish application vendors were smarter about this. Windows is NOT where they should be focusing. That's bad for them and their customers both in terms of overall cost and lock-in to a dangerous environment that will only become more costly in the years to come. Microsoft is going to need more and more new revenue and they'll suck it from those who are foolhardy enough to put on the golden Windows handcuffs. Moving to open source Linux is better all around.



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Sat Jan 26 02:31:13 2008: 3533   drag


This is fairly normal. At my old job they had to 'upgrade' a label printing application. This was dealing with commercial mass mailing so there is a lot of regulations they have to deal with with the post office and such to be able to retain certain certifications and get certain types of discounts.

The application folks provided a GUI-driven windows-only system for this label printing. This is, of course, completely stupid. It's not a large company and everything is heavily automated and the IT folks come from a very professional IBM mainframe environment and are big fans of Linux. Everything is heavily automated, large amounts of scripting in multiple languages, etc etc. The idea that you have to have some person sitting in front of a computer monitor in order to click 3 clicks and hit 'enter' is laughable.

Screw that. One computer sends a conformation email, uploads the information to the other computer and the other computer prints them out. The only human intervention should happen is grabing the stuff from the printer output and mailing it off ot the print shop.

After a while of fighting it the other company pissed the head developer off enough that he simply wrote a few more scripts to generate the PCL to get the labels done. Took him a couple weeks until he got the output right, but it ended up being fully automatic and it ended up providing more consistant output.

Now they have nicer labels and everybody is being productive instead of babysitting some Windows machine.

It happenned again with some silly government-ness. They wanted us to use Zip app to decrypt some Zip files stored on DVD media. It's using AES encryption and they swore up and down that the only supported app was WinZip. And they said it was 'ok' because that app supported Linux.

Of course the 'client' license for Windows made it freeware, but for Linux you could only get the full package and it cost a couple thousand dollars. And not only that it was GUI-only. Stupid on top of stupid.

So I did some research, and found that a then-recent update to 7-zip allowed that app to do what we wanted and that was that. A perl script using that that took a couple hours to make and a couple weeks to perfect put a end to the need for that GUI app.

Right now I am of the opinion that all GUI apps should be developed with a command-line or scripting library back-end. That comes first and the pretty user interface should be something that is seperate. That way you get the best of both worlds. A GUI app for times were you need to do something easily and conviently with acceptable defaults. A command-line/scripting interface for times when you need to get serious work done. It just makes things so much easier.

Oh well.



Sat Jan 26 02:37:16 2008: 3534   drag


Er.. Maybe it was PKZIP or something like that I don't remember. It was a while ago. I forget.

Oh well.



Sat Jan 26 03:15:55 2008: 3535   TonyLawrence

gravatar
Isn't it amazing how Windows computers have actually managed to require MORE people?

So many tasks that you and I would automate and forget are dutifully performed daily by people using Windows apps..



Mon Jan 28 22:02:40 2008: 3546   MikeHostetler


This story is way too typical -- small software companies are starting to be windows-centric because they think it's easier to find Windows developers. It maybe true, but the quality won't be there.

I once heard a theory that Nike and Microsoft where in cahoots with each other -- besides that they are both in Washington state, but you can wear out shoes while administrating a Windows network. :)



Fri Feb 1 20:18:19 2008: 3571   BigDumbDinosaur


I surely don't need to add anything to this article. Tony managed, in a few paragraphs, to state exactly what's wrong with the state of computing today. All these Windows sycophants are busy tossing out methods that have served us well for decades and replacing them with technology that just flat doesn't work right, if at all.

I feel bad for the businessman and his wife over the financial hit they took and the strain that was put on their relationship. Computers should be helping them run their operation, not getting in the way. Sounds to me as though the latter is all that happened in this case.

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