Tech Monthly: Playtime: CHARLES ARTHUR: HOW THE QUEST FOR PERFECT SOFTWARE RUINED ALL MY FUN
(Observer (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) "Whatever you do, don't set it up to have email alerts," giggled Werner Vogels, Amazon's chief technology officer. "One thing you really don't want is to get an alert every time you get an email."
He was telling me this early in 2013; we were talking about his Pebble smartwatch. I had ordered one (along with thousands of other people) on the funding platform, Kickstarter, and was waiting for it to be delivered. And waiting. But patience is a virtue and a smartwatch that could connect to my phone via Bluetooth seemed worth waiting for.
And in time it arrived, and I was pleased with it: my review was positive. Now I didn't have to take my phone out to know if someone had rung me or messaged me; I could even be a good distance away from my phone. (In one case, I was well outside our house when my wife texted urgently. I wouldn't have seen or known about it for ages without my Pebble.) I didn't have it set up to tell me about Facebook or Twitter updates, because I don't consider those urgent enough to need to appear on my watch.
Bliss it was to be alive at that time. Until - an update. A new version of iOS in September brought low-energy Bluetooth, and Pebble updated the software. Now, Pebble's people were delighted to say, you could control all sorts of notifications, and it would all use low-energy Bluetooth, so your phone (which for me was lasting about five days between charges) would go even longer before needing charging. Like a fool, I updated at the first opportunity, and discovered that the opportunity to be told only about phone calls and messages had gone. The information appearing on my Pebble watchface would now be the same as that on my iPhone's notification centre - where I see what emails, Twitter responses, calls and texts I'd received. Argh. If I wanted the Pebble only to show calls and texts, I'd have to configure the notification centre to show those.
Dommage. I went online to the support forums to see if there was any help, and came up short. Pebble's chief executive waved the possibility of "an update" at some point in the future. That's a no, then. So while I still like my Pebble (I've set it to show when I get a call; texts are in the past), there's a bitter aftertaste. We're all familiar with this experience. We get something that is just right, and then a software update comes along and spoils it. If you're a compulsive early adopter, you tend to get bitten. Everyone's got a tale of a favourite piece of software that was just perfect, and then some damn fool spoiled it. It might be Windows (I heard a woman groaning about Windows 8 compared with Windows 7 last week), or Gmail (there are forums stuffed with people disliking its web redesign) or Apple's (being generally crashy, and making some users feel ill with its zoom effects).
There have even been cases where software updates have removed functionality: in December 2011 both Amazon and Barnes & Noble rolled out updates to their e-readers that prevented people getting access to the file system.
More recently, Google's Android 4.4 update kills the ability to decide what permissions you want to give apps, on a per-app basis, rather than the usual "take it or leave it" that Android apps give you.
For the writers of the software, the upgrade path takes us all towards the sunlit uplands. Everything is better; why would you resist? Bugs are only a temporary stumble on the road. Downgrades? They're a retrograde step. We are always nearer to perfect functionality - yet we never quite
Oh, and one other thing: everyone has to come on this journey. That point is the frustrating one. Although there are many people out there who can be your guinea pigs for new software - you can let them find the faults if you're patient - eventually you're forced to join them on the march forward. There'll be a killer new feature that you'll have to trade off against the functionality you used to like.
Grin and bear it. The software update is coming round to you.
(c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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