In 1974, I bought a small house. It was the right house, the right price, and in a quiet neighborhood, so it was the perfect house for a writer.
With three bedrooms and a den, it was actually a lot more house than I needed. After turning the den into an office, I still had two extra rooms. One I turned into a workshop, the other became my reading room—a comfortable little library. I repainted it a comfortable light blue, put down some dark-blue carpet tiles in a random pattern, a couple of reading chairs, and some good lighting.
After a few months of general fixing-up and decorating, I had the house looking comfortable and lived-in. So I held a house-warming party. About 50 people showed up, and to the best of my knowledge, almost all of them had a wonderful time. Except for a woman of my acquaintance, who enthroned herself in one of the most comfortable chairs in my library and was very politely explaining to several of my friends how unfortunate it was that I had such terrible taste. The chairs were in the wrong place, the room was the wrong color, the carpet wasn’t a good match, and if I had asked her advice, she could have made my house so much more tasteful.
Hearing all this, I went in, took the plate out of her hand, set her drink aside, took her by the elbow and escorted her to the door. As she sputtered in confusion, I said, “Don’t you think it’s hypocritical for you to sit in my chair, eating my food and drinking my liquor, while telling others what terrible taste I have? I do. Goodbye. Thanks for coming. Don’t ever do it again.”
No, I’m not a nice person. Why do you even ask? But what does this have to do with software?
A couple months ago, a piece of e-mail arrived that looked like it had come from one of the computer magazines I follow. It was an advertisement for a product that promised to clean up the detritus from old files and reimage any parts of the operating system that might have been affected. Because I have an online subscription to the magazine in question, I assumed this had come through their offices and it was some kind of a special promotion. It looked legit.
So I made a mistake. I clicked on “install.” No, it wasn’t a virus, it wasn’t a Trojan, it wasn’t malware. It was rudeware.
The first thing it did was scan my hard drives. It promptly reported 643 different things it could fix to speed up my machine. Just as soon as I sent them US$69.95, it would fix them. Uh, no.
I took its drink, I took its plate of food, and I politely escorted it to the door and kicked it out. And that would have been the end of it—but that’s when I discovered that it had also rearranged my furniture for me. It had changed the home page on both of the browsers I use, changed the default search engine on both, and added several ad-sponsored toolbars as well.
I should have looked closer. An online search for reviews popped up many positive reviews. Some of those reviews were honest. Many more were phony pages that pretended to be unbiased product comparisons but were actually thinly disguised ads. Finally, some more spelunking revealed that the original product had been purchased by another company, which was now using it as a Trojan for installing various browser hijacks.
I could have used System Restore to fix things, but I find it more interesting to lift up the rock and see what’s actually lurking underneath. In this case, it wasn’t the most dangerous set of critters I’ve ever seen, but it was some of the rudest.
Yes, it was my fault for installing the program, but the product had been invited into my computer as a guest. Instead of behaving itself like a good guest, it told me that my place was a mess, that I wasn’t taking care of it as I should, and then began to rearrange things according to the way it wanted them to be.
Essentially, it was saying, “You don’t get to choose how you want your computer setup. I know better. Your computer is a place for me to sell you things. I’ll tell you what homepage you can have, what toolbars you need, what search engine you must use. You don’t get a vote.”
Yes, I do get a vote. I get to kick you out of my computer and out of my house. And no, this is not just a momentary bit of foolish rudeness on your part. It’s something much more disrespectful of the underlying relationship. You promised me a useful tool, I opened my door to you, and you scammed me. That says you do not want a long-lasting, mutually beneficial relationship. You’re just in it for the short-term gain for yourself. That’s not the relationship I want.
And that’s the point. Software is a relationship. Some relationships are one-night stands, some are flings, some are longer lasting, and some become lifelong partnerships. The most successful and effective software companies in the world are those that have created lifelong partnerships with their customers. Apple, Microsoft and Adobe are the first three that spring to my mind, but they aren’t the only ones. Nuance, FileMaker Pro and Google are also on my list. So are Avid, Blizzard, and a small army of essential utility programs like CloneSpy, CCleaner, Audacity, EAC, VLC, uTorrent and TreeSize.
A successful partnership, whether it’s a business relationship or a baseball team or a marriage, is based on mutual respect and mutual contribution. It’s not just an economic transaction; it’s the possibility of continuing mutual benefit.
People who understand that do well. People who do not understand that end up in court, either bankruptcy or divorce. (By the way, my arrogant guest ended up in both.)
What do you think?
David Gerrold is the author of over 50 books, several hundred articles and columns, and over a dozen television episodes, including the famous “Star Trek” episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles.” He is also an authority on computer software and programming, and takes a broad view of the evolution of advanced technologies. Readers may remember Gerrold from the Computer Language Magazine forum on CompuServe, where he was a frequent and prolific contributor in the 1990s.