Archive for February, 2008

Twitter Faux-Popularity

February 17, 2008

There’s some sort of strange behavior going on that I can’t figure out. Just about every day for the last few weeks, somebody entirely random has started to follow me on Twitter. These people include people with real jobs, weird political spam, and who-knows-why.

I think what’s going on is some form of self-viral marketing, where the person figures if they send 20 messages, one person will become their friend, and then they’ll have more Followers, which will get them closer to… something. That’s clearly what this person is doing as she welcomes her new Followers.

Either that, or people are associating some kind of value with having a very long “Following” list. I have no idea what that value would be – it’s like subscribing to and then bragging about reading a lot of blogs in your RSS feed (which I thought was reserved for megalomaniacs, but at least in that case there’s a reason), but somehow even less interesting.

Am I missing something?

(If you don’t know me, there’s really no reason to follow me on Twitter. Heck, if you do know me, there’s still no reason.)

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Windows Live Writer Team, I Feel For Ya

February 16, 2008

A few things I know about software installation in the software industry:

  • It’s the engineering job of last resort. First job you give to the new guy (or the college hire), first to outsource or offshore, first problems you’re happy to ignore (especially since during the development process you don’t see it). (I’m sure there are exceptions to this, but it’s a good start.)
  • The Internet made it easy to bundle/upsell/force things ya don’t want. Real, we’re talking to you.

So what happens when you’re building a very cool app and you get whomped with these two things?

Ladies and gentlemen, the Windows Live Writer setup process.

WLW is a desktop blogging tool, one of the best in the biz, easy to use, smart in an Intellisense sort of way (does very good things with images in tables), free to everyone and compatible with Blogger, WordPress, Microsoft MSN Yahoo Something Live Spaces, etc. It’s one of the few Microsoft software products you can use where it really feels like the people working on it put their soul into it, and the love has been shared back. I’ve been using it for months. (The WLW blog hasn’t been updated for 2+ months, which is not a good sign.)

Anyway, I was using a beta version which had expired and I kept getting a nag dialog, and then I hit a bug only solved by an upgrade when posting on the WhitePages Developer Blog, so I finally tried to upgrade.

Time spent upgrading from beta to final version: 3 hours. (That includes about 45 minutes downloading and evaluating alternative tools like Zoundry when the WLW installation was too painful – but I didn’t like those tools enough to continue.)

Some of the highlights:

  1. That initial nag dialog had a “download” button, but it didn’t actually download the client. It instead took you to the WLW website, where you then searched about for a downloadable client. This made sense in the few years after the web was ubiquitous and before automated installers were ubiquitous, but those years passed some time ago.
  2. Download and start the installation, and immediately comes an inscrutable dialog (unfortunately I didn’t know I would be writing a blog post or I would have captured it), saying that you can’t continue until you install “Windows Update Agent 5.8.02469.”I have no idea what this is, or why I would need it. There are no buttons on the dialog to install it, or explain it, or point you to a website explaining it. You close the dialog and then… you’re stuck.
  3. I figured that this might be connected to Windows Update, so I tried to start Windows Update. Then I entered some crazy circle of hell where I went to update.microsoft.com, it kept warning me that I was going to install unsafe software, I kept installing the same ActiveX control over and over again, but nothing ever, well, happened. So I tried rebooting.
  4. I restarted the Windows Update website, and then it started to spin while investigating my computer. So I googled “Windows Update Agent 5.8.02469” and found one technical post surrounded by spam on all sides. The instructions are slightly off but it pointed me to a directly-downloadable exe, so if you see my post when searching, follow step 3 from that link.
  5. That download and install didn’t actually work, but it did tell me that something was already installed, so I figured I’d try WLW again.
  6. Now this mysterious dialog is gone and the installation continues.
  7. The installation asks me the standard “do you want to install Microsoft X, Y, & Z,” and I say no. Then something I’ve never seen before happens – the installer decides to search my computer to find if I have other things on it, so it can upsell me another set of applications if I don’t.Here’s the dialog:

    image

    The first version of this dialog told me it was searching my computer for other products I’d like to install. Then I got the “sorry” version.

    It’s one thing to upsell me. It’s another thing to force me to wait so you can decide what to upsell me. It’s yet another thing to force me to continue to wait because your installer is failing so you can decide what to upsell me. (A good rule of thumb: if a process between your software’s definition of end state and the customer’s goal is failing and you can complete the customer’s goal in any way, shut down the process.)

    I was stuck on this dialog for ~15 mins.

    Another reason this is a weird dialog is that the only thing I can do is Cancel the whole thing: if you don’t see the “Waiting,” you don’t realize that there are multiple things going on at one time, and Cancel stops all of them, not just the one you don’t want.

    Oh, and “Sign-In Assistant”? I still have no idea what that is.

Finally the pain ends, the dialog allows me to start WLW, and I’m able to publish a blog post with some images. You can see how Steps 1-6 come because the setup team just doesn’t really know how to do this right, and Step 7 comes because the installer doesn’t care about me, it cares about its other software.

I don’t know anybody on the WLW team. Perhaps this unclear, convoluted, prone-to-fail introduction to their product was their goal.

I doubt it, though. I assume that they, like me, are victims – of company priorities and of setup software sold out to the lowest bidder. They worked hard on building a great app, and then they got surrounded by things out of their control. Maybe they didn’t see it coming – this installation process didn’t exist in the earlier betas, maybe it was a late bolt-on. Maybe it wasn’t tested. I don’t know – all I know is the results, which say that at the very least, upgrading from the beta is too hard for normal humans.

Installation is important, especially when it’s hard. One reason given for Majestic’s failure in 2001 was that only 8% of the people who started the install were able to complete it. (The number’s from memory, I don’t remember the source.) Google Talk never really got credit for their brilliant initial install – click the download button, say OK, and you’re done – it just started, not another dialog. (A few reviews mentioned it at the time, here’s the only one I can find now. I don’t know if it still works this way.)

This version of WLW is better, it’s fixed a few annoyances I had, and I’ll keep using it. I hope that band is still together or gets back together, it’s a neat product. Here’s hoping they get to make the whole experience better for their users.