In Software is sometimes done Rian van der Merwe makes the argument that we need more software that is “done”:
I do wonder what would happen if we felt the weight of responsibility a little more when we’re designing software. What if we go into a project as if the design we come up with might not only be done at some point, but might be around for 100 years or more? Would we make it fit into the web environment better, give it a timeless aesthetic, and spend more time considering the consequences of our design decisions?
It’s an interesting question – if we had to get things right the first time, would we do a better job? If our design decisions were set in stone for all time would things be better?
The problem is, we’ve already asked this question and decided that in fact designing things up front and setting it in stone doesn’t work as well as releasing early and often with short feedback cycles so that we can adjust as we go. It’s waterfall vs agile and it turns out agile wins.
That said, there’s a difference between being rushing a sloppy job out the door and doing things well with an iterative cycle to adjust to learning. An short feedback loop is there to let you learn and improve, not to let you release any old thing and get away with it. We need more software developed by doing the best job possible with the information available, combined with a short feedback cycle to gather more information and continually raise the stakes for what’s possible.
It can be romantic to look back and think that we used to do a better job because things were more permanent, that software used to be done, but it’s just not true:
When Windows 95 came out, it was done. Yes, there were some patches to it, but they were few and far between, and in general quite difficult to come by. But of course, then the Internet and App Stores happened in full force, and suddenly we decided that “Software is never done”. In some sense this is certainly true. There are always bugs to fix, things to improve, more features to add, unused features to remove — and of course, the SaaS model makes it all so easy. But I wonder if we’ve taken this a bit too far.
Windows 95 may have a been done, but Windows was not. Otherwise we’d still be running Windows 95. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that anyone at Microsoft ever thought that Windows 95 would be the last thing they ever released, that the OS would never change in the future.
Even if we consider Windows 95 as a standalone thing that is “done”, would you run it today? Of course not, by modern standards it’s horrible. The same is true of every other piece of unmaintained software I can think of, it may have been good enough or even the best for a long time after it became unmaintained but eventually it falls behind. Eventually it stops being “done” in the sense that it doesn’t need any further work and becomes “done” in the sense that no one uses it anymore.