Desktop Software: A Failed Model

I’ve been planning this post for quite awhile, when a disastrous McAfee update over the weekend pushed it to top priority. However, Phil Wainewright beat me to it in DST spells disaster for shrinkwrap software. He describes the nightmare scenario: lots of businesses fail when they miss appointments due to bungled patches, or patches just applied in the wrong order. (Update: ZDNet already talks about meltdown.) I couldn’t agree more with his conclusion:

It is hard to imagine a better demonstration of the absurdity of customer-installed and operated software than the fast-approaching catastrophe of DST” (emphasis mine)

I fully agree, but let me take it a step further: consumers, not only businesses are in the same shoes, and it’s high time for us to rethink this “absurd model”.

For me the last drop was the bungled McAfee update that happened in the background, without me touching anything, as it should…. except that first I experienced email scan failures on send, then other applications shut down, finally I lost wireless connection, all in a course of a few days. Seemingly unrelated issues; one might think of removing recently installed “suspicious” software, doing a system restore, reinstalling windows, getting the wireless hardware checked..etc. As it turned out, a McAfee module was corrupted, it caused apps to misbehave and WinXP to turn on Windows Firewall (I normally have it off, since McAfee takes care of it), which in turn blocked my wireless connection. I’ll spare you the ugly details, but I wasted a good half day on fixing it. I feel I should send an invoice for my time, but McAfee would just laugh it off.

However, the above story is not at all unique. We all experienced bungled Windows / Antivirus / Office / you-name-it updates, the famous Patch Tuesdays actually last a week (to get a successful auto-install), than the patch that messed up the computer again has to be patched just to get your PC back to normal – but in the meantime it’s nothing like normal, spending way too much time maintaining itself. Phil raises the question:

“But is it an even better fix to abandon Outlook and Exchange altogether and switch to an on-demand alternative? That’s a question I’ll be looking at in a second article on this topic.”

I’ll jump the gun here and vote YES. The sooner we get applications and data off the desktop, the better.

Now, I can hear the loud objection: “What about performance? I can run applications a lot faster on my PC than on the Net…” Sure, if you waste a lot of money on buying the latest screamer.

And even then, you can’t be sure… recently there was an uproar as a number of users reported that the Outlook 2007 / Vista combo is unbelievably slow on spanking new PCs with superfast CPU and vast amounts of memory. Check out The Guardian, Mini-Microsoft, Dennis Howlett, Jason Busch, Tim Anderson, Chris Pirillo, Dan Farber, Phil Wainewright for details. Here are some juicy bits from Mini-Microsoft, who is obsessed with fixing Microsoft and would start by reducing its size to 30%:

“Then I finally installed my Company Store copy at home and enabled Desktop Search. You’d think I had just sprayed the inside of my poor mega-laptop with saltwater to induce non-stop fritzing. I’ve learned to meditate while Outlook ruminates over ten incoming POP messages of 69K. Perhaps it takes a few seconds over each incoming message or RSS feed to contribute to solving a Grand Challenge. Or it and Desktop Search have to play 333 iterations of rock-paper-scissors everytime a change has to be written”

Mini’s conclusion: Performance is a Feature. (And Outlook does not have it.) Well, I have news to add: it’s not only Outlook 2007. I’ve been experiencing painfully sluggish performance on my Outlook 2003 under WinXP. I already submitted to the fact that whenever Outlook downloads messages, I can’t touch my PC, it keeps itself 100% busy.

Technically, I don’t really know nor do I care if it’s Outlook; after all there is a cornucopia of software fighting for CPU and memory: McAfee to protect me from viruses, Copernic Desktop Search so I can find again what I placed on the hard disk, since Windows can’t do it by itself, Mozy to back up my stuff, Foldershare to sync it with another PC, and probably a bunch of other stuff I could not care less about. Why? Because they don’t deliver any end-user functionality. They just keep the damn thing running and (perhaps) safe. In other words they do things I don’t have to worry about if I use on-demand applications and data.

It’s not only Outlook though: randomly my PC goes into a crazy cycle when I hear the hard disk whirl and it keeps itself busy locking me out. The other they I had someone on the phone wait for close to 2 minutes until finally the Excel file I needed gracefully opened. If I already have a browser open – and that’s the first thing I launch when I fire up the PC – opening a Zoho Sheet is much faster than Excel. The same goes for Word: Zoho Writer or Writely (yes, I know it has a new name…) are faster to launch.

Microsoft actually has some advice: reduce the size of your Outlook file. Mine is not that large, but I have two huge archive.pst files that I can’t close. If you use Outlook, in half a year or so the infamous “The operation failed. An object could not be found” error with the unclosable archives in inevitable. I know how to fix it – need to create a new Mail Profile, then recreate my accounts, rules and a few other things. I’m not going through all this again, for the n-th time. I’ll just hold tight till I can move to a better platform online. How do I know about the fix in the first place? By searching the Net. But why do I have to search, investigate, and generally become IT support for myself only to run simple applications? It’s 2007, the PC industry wants to take over Entertainment yet they can’t even deliver solid, user-friendly basic computing.

Since I’m talking about performance, I have to “admit” that my PC is not a top-of-the-line screamer. Why should it be? While it’s perfectly reasonable to upgrade to the latest and greatest for functional benefits, say playing games, or editing videos, my laptop is just a blogging machine – basically typing, occasionally opening a spreadsheet or presentation. I refuse to enter the arms race where I have to get faster and faster machines only so they can maintain themselves and barely let me use basic apps. When the first dual-core processors came out, Dell advertised the new machines claiming users would be able to work, play a video while the machine downloads email and runs virus check. That tells a lot about the core of the problem: i.e. I need dual core for the machine just to do the basics and still let leave some capacity to the user! This is nonsense.

So where are we? Performance issues, overload of patches, need to become one’s IT support: these are all signs of a failed model: installing and updating software on the desktop. Businesses are increasingly recognizing this and are turning to SaaS, and I feel we’ve reached the threshold where it will become more and more attractive for individual users, too. I’m not a religious SaaS believer though. It’s nice to see even the absolute Office 2.0 proponents to have come around and realize the importance of offline access. Seamless computing for a while will require online/offline access.

We’re clearly not there yet. However, I feel we’ve passed a tipping point: while 2 years ago the ideal mix would have been desktop computing with additional online access, now I feel as a user I am better off fundamentally working online, with occasional offline access. I’ve half made the transition, and there are two features I’m waiting for to complete it:

  • synchronization of my calendar and contacts data
  • a better way to manage/search documents (I have a half-baked, soon-to-be-released post on the inefficiencies of the folder system).

My bet is on Google or Zoho to get there first. As soon as it happens, I’m going 100% on-demand.

Last, but not least: I’m willing to pay for it. What, you may ask: Web 2.0 is free, isn’t it? Well, you do get what you pay for, and I want guaranteed service level and support.

Think about it: I bet if you add up the cost of time spent on fixing PC problems, tracking down software bugs, the opportunity cost of NOT doing something better in that time, the frequent PC upgrades – compared to all that paying (modest) fees for a reliable on-demand service becomes quite a bargain.

What do YOU think?

Related posts:

(This article is republished on the Enterprise Irregulars blog)

Update: I’ve made the move, and my post on Importing all your email archive into Gmail appears to be my most-read post ever.

Update (7/27): Jeremy Zawodny sums it up well:

I’m simply not going to bother with the hassle, trouble, expense, and complexity of desktop applications when an online substitute will do the job anymore. Life’s too short already.

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  1. Zoli, I think you have nailed it.

    With broadband becoming faster and faster (Virgin Media will be trailing 50Mbit/s later in 2007 on their cable network) the lack of speed issue becomes less and less.

    There will be the issue of the connected and the unconnected. Not everyone will be able to get access to this kind of infrastructure and then speed will be a feature. I like the speed of things locally installed but when they take 3 minutes to start up or to respond to a click, even with gobs of RAM, it is a concern.



  2. In our company we have tried Outlook, Groupwise, OpenExchange and even Thunderbird, allthough it’s not a real collab tool. We had excactly those problems you are talking about.

    Now we use Gmail and it really works fine, finally. Web-Access as default and even mobile access!

    What should I say…

  3. I think we are taking the availability of Net connected to be granted. This can be a good assumption for businesses, but I do not think it is applicable to individuals. A good always on Net connection is still expensive in a lot of places. And I would hate if I had to depend on any weaker connection for my basic tasks. Of course some apps should be on the Web, like email, but I cannot say the same about Office apps. Is trying Linux an alternative?

  4. Anonymous says

    You use bold characters a little too much.

  5. Zoli Erdos says

    You’re right, thanks for pointing it out. I’ve just combed through the post and reduced bolding.

  6. Man, you sure like you strong tags, don’t ya? 🙂

  7. Zoli,

    This is a cultural shift, and I believe more and more people will come to realize this. I have noticed just how much of the “work” my laptop CPU does it to keep itself safe (anti-virus, anti-spyware etc), and it is just annoying to have a fast CPU, lots of memory being spent this way. As web applications mature, the remaining reasons to cling to desktop apps will melt away. At least, that’s our bet at Zoho …


  8. Zoli,

    I agree that Outlook and Office will see fierce competition from web based applications. A web app doesn’t need installation or updates, has built in data backup, and often performs better than desktop apps in fringe cases (like extremely large user documents).

    I’m not convinced that web applications will replace desktop apps in the long run. Their model of central application control leads to fragmented user interface models and difficulty in sharing data between applications. I have yet to see web applications which show clear superiority to the desktop user experience of good Mac applications.

    Certainly, the emergence of “on-demand” has raised the bar of user expectations. This is significant for “Office” like applications, which haven’t innovated much over the last 20 years. But to say desktop software is dead is the wrong way to go. I would keep an eye out for the emergence of web-like desktop applications: automatically managed, cross-platform, with remote data storage options but local performance and offline availability.

    – Vinny

    • I think Vinny has a point. I use Google Docs for multiple editor documents at work, but they have limited usability and file size. I do not like the Open Office Suite, as compared to the Microsoft Office Suite. I do, however, work a lot with Remote Access software which means I do not have to worry about data storage and security is controlled.

  9. Radar Relay – What’s Happening in Office 2.0

    I might as well titled this post the Radar Delay – first it was due last Friday, as part of series of reviews leading up to the Under the Radar: Office 2.0 event, but then fellow Enterprise Irregular Rod Boothby posted an “extra” article the same day, …

  10. Great article, though I don’t agree with you completely. I find this hard to say since I only use Microsoft products because my job requires it, but I think Office 2007 is the best product MS ever released. I started beta testing it back in July/August and can’t image life without it. Vista on the other hand is a complete hog and Microsoft should have trashed it before they ever released it. With Linux Distros such as Ubuntu and Fedora, more non techies will find that they can get usability they want without having to bow down to the Satanic Cult known as Microsoft.

    I found Zoho a few weeks ago and have been using it ever since. It is a great application, and will work for most people, but it is still lacking. I have a blazing fast connection and it still takes a long time to log in sometimes.

    Google apps on the other hand seem to function at speeds that would lead me to believe I was running everything from the desktop. But they don’t provide all the functionality that Zoho does. This is where Google falls short.

    In order for these online services to really get the upper hand, they need to get increased bandwidth to handle the amount of users that will want to use their services. As well as provide more or less the same functionality that we can get on the desktop.

  11. We’ve been using Simdesk/SimHouston for years now. Just gets better and better.

    Thinkpads came with Office preinstalled – but we no longer use Office. Excel is the only holdout.

  12. what about data ownership & survivability? what about the inherit weakness of needing the ‘pipe’ to access your data and applications?
    I think the merits of online apps are obvious, but I’m concerned about gmail or anyone else for that matter having the data. There are issues of potability, too – how can I be sure that I can move my data & apps when I want to?

  13. A company I worked for in 2003 – let me say that again, in bold: 2003 – attempted to centralise its database. Essentially, it was doing what you’re suggesting in this post; running the most business-critical app on an online system based in Vancouver (we were in London).

    At the time, it simply didn’t work. Broadband wasn’t reliable enough.

    Now, in 2008, I’m pushing for my company to move to an online database system. I believe uptimes have improved enough that it will work, and I believe that the improvements in the company gained by the ability to communicate between sites will more than compensate for the odd few minutes of downtime that still occur (usually because of our crappy router, but I know how to kick that back into life).

    And my boss won’t believe me 🙁 Doesn’t think it will be reliable enough.

  14. His time will come 🙂

  15. Agree with above: I think that you should use less boldface.

    Also, the problem isn’t with applications installed on the desktop – the problem is with what applications you’re running. avast! is lower footprint than Norton, Thunderbird is lower footprint than Outlook (right?), Opera is lower footprint than IE or Firefox 2.* (and I hear good things about Firefox 3), and of course OS X and Ubuntu both are much lower footprint than Vista. You don’t need a screamer to run office on an XP desktop with a virus scanner running in the background – hell, I did it on a 700MHz CPU, 256MB RAM computer for 2 years. Say what you want about performance, but at least concede that having the full application in RAM is not the only problem here.

    There is something quite nice about taking my laptop, files and all, on flights with me (to name one example). Don’t tell me that VLC, Mathematica, or iTunes (all of which I use on flights regularly) should be Saas.

    Seriously consider finding alternative software.

  16. Daniel Williams says

    Well, I agree that SaaS is a powerful force. I was just now cleaning up my laptop, which I do from time to time. It’s a Dell Inspiron 2200 from a few years back, running XP, and it serves me well.
    I was looking at programs in the Add/Remove list and wondering what I could delete. I found it much easier to delete random little programs that I have not used in a year or more. Much easier that it was even a year ago. The reason is that I figure that if I need a certain functionality, say star charts, or a music editor, I can likely find an online app to use. If not now, then soon.
    So my attitude toward my laptop is changing. I do all of my development on a machine owned by my employee, located 1200 miles away. That’s where I have Sql Server, Office, Visual Studio, and other large apps installed. But the machines at my home, desktop or laptop, just don’t need that much on them (a Nintendo 64 satisfies my gaming needs!) They really are just portals into other machines or online apps.
    I am using Google Apps more and more, and just started with Zoho (I really like the scratch spreadsheet – just what I need 50% of the time!). The only Office holdout on my laptop is Visio. I do need that from time to time. But those times are becoming less often!


  17. Please, no more of this Webapps talk. Computers are designed to run code in a process memory, and frankly, the only reasons your apps are so slow, is because they come from big companies that care squat for you, the only thing they care about is selling volume for their mediocre applications. Welcome to capitalism.

    If you think Net applications are faster, you again, are mistaken. Not to mention the amount of resources it takes your machine (which is not a screamer by your own words) to render an AJAX page. If you want to run layers on top of layers just because you think the bottom layer dont cut it anymore, thats a weird logic. Absolutely no reason for Web apps to not become as bloated as our desktop software has become, and instead of trying to change the paradigm, try to advocate change in desktop software instead, because the resources on the bottom layer are just more vast. A CPU executing a native process is potentially 100x faster if not by thousands, than that same CPU executing AJAX code. And the gap will never really close. If you dont care about speed, you should at least care about your power bill. If the whole computer user planet switches to webapps, the resource usage of every machine goes up and makes a not so small contribution to our already prevalent (thanks to idiots similiar to those sitting in board rooms in Silicon Valley) energy crisis.

    You are right in your dissatisfaction, but you propose the wrong solution. I, for one, do not want to live in a web browser during my user session.

    Find and install people who write real software instead.

    Thank you for reading, I apologise for emotions. After all, i am only human.


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