Don't blame the engineers

April 18, 2001
It seems like we're forever learning new operating systems, message and database programs, and terminally upgraded word processors.

Our office recently got a new suite of copy machines. The first time I went to use one, it overwhelmed me with unhelpful Help messages and cryptic hints about what to do next. What paper size did I want? What orientation? Onesided to two-sided, or vice versa? Did I want it collated, stapled, or printed on three-holed paper?

No. I just wanted to copy an 8.5 11-in. sheet of text. As I stood humbly in front of the machine, I spotted a notice about company-wide copier training. At first I thought it was an ironic comment, a joke. A device once simple enough to be used by unsupervised children now requires a training course. I realize some people might use a fraction of its features someday, but wouldn't it have been less expensive to buy just a bare-bones copier and leave advanced tasks for the company's copy center?

It reminded me of the endless software and hardware upgrades our company buys into, as do most other firms. It seems like we're forever learning new operating systems, message and database programs, and terminally upgraded word processors. As an editor, I primarily use the word processor. All I really need is one font, the alphanumerics found on any old Royal typewriter, rudimentary formatting and save functions, and a spell checker. Everything else, from the 90 fonts and pseudo spread-sheet functions to the grammar checker and cross referencer, is a drag on machine resources and a waste of money.

But it's not engineers developing the capabilities in these and other consumer machines who are at the heart of this explosion of unwanted features. It's purchasing agents spending someone else's money based on hype spouted by marketeers of these consumer goods. Software vendors harp on "enhanced compatibility that ensures seamless use of information," and how the latest word processor program "makes it easy to take control and manage your personal information, saving you time." Then they ask, "Do you want to be just another mom-and-pop operation?"

To those controlling the purse strings, it's a no-brainer. Having bought Version 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0, we just naturally must be first in line for 4.0. If that means upgrading all our PCs and their operating systems and suffering through another company-wide IT effort, well, so be it. And if the lease is up on the copier, why renew it, or buy the machine, when we can get a newer, "better" one for just a few dollars more?

The fact no one using the software asked for new features, and most are just barely up to speed on the old software's features, is beside the point. It's also moot that the staff has finally mastered the copier. That's just the way things happen in this service providing, e-enabled business world.

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