October 12, 2008

Subtractive Software

Software developer Brent Simmons shares some interesting thoughts on how & why applications grow and grow:

 

Here’s the schizo thing about software development (at least on Macs):

 

1. Everybody praises apps that don’t have a ton of preferences and features.

2. Everybody asks for some new preferences and features.

 

(Okay, not everybody. Not you, I know. I mean everybody else.)

 

To make it worse:

 

1. Everybody thinks they’re representative of the typical user, so what they want ought to be a no-brainer.

2. And they act like you put skunks in their fridge if you don’t do whatever-it-is.

 

(Okay, again — not you. You’re cool. I’m talking about the others.)

 

The problem is 100 times worse when it comes to deleting features…

 

It’s extremely difficult to remove features from Photoshop.  Once you’ve gotten someone to rely on a bit of functionality, you feel responsible for not letting them down (making me think of The Little Prince).  All features, even if many years old and seemingly unchanged, consume effort to maintain, especially when we’re modernizing the application architecture (for 64-bit, Cocoa, GPU, better localization, etc.).  Even so, we’re loathe to pull the rug out from under anyone.

 

No one uses everything in the app, and yet everything in the app is used by someone.  Even if a feature benefits only 1% of customers, that translates into tens of thousands of people–and that’s just counting the ones paying for any given version (not those with older copies, and not counting thieves).

 

Here’s a case in point: A couple of cycles back (CS, I believe), we decided that the 3D Transform filter had outlived its usefulness, so we decided to send it to the Restful Menus Retirement Home (offering it on the product DVD, but no longer installing it by default).  No one ever talked about using this feature, and yet as soon as we moved it, the tech support calls started piling up.  Even a couple of years later, Pete Bauer from the NAPP Help Desk reported that they’d still gotten 25 inquiries within a month.  I’ve started to think that the best way to find out who uses a feature is to try removing it.

 

Why do I mention all this?  Two reasons:

 

  1. Maybe we can’t remove (many) features–but you canConfigurator is about subtraction.  Taken together with Photoshop’s ability to remove menu items & to save workspaces that apply custom menu/panel/keyboard arrangements, Configurator helps you assemble versions of Photoshop that are "everything you need, nothing you don’t."  Most people will probably never get around to creating their own configurations, but because they’ll be extremely easy to share, everyone can benefit from them.
  2. We’ve bitten the bullet with this release and have sent a number of features into retirementExtract, Pattern Maker, Web Photo Gallery, Contact Sheet, Picture Package, and PDF Presentation have been removed from the default installation.  The latter four have been replaced by the Output module in Bridge CS4, and our intention is to replace Extract with features inside Photoshop (building on Refine Edge & more).  All of these except PDF Presentation will remain available as optional installs (to be posted on Adobe.com), but over time they’ll be phased out.



There aren’t any magic bullets here, and as I say, we’re loathe to disrupt existing workflows.  We can’t sit still, however, and with CS4 we’re making progress on multiple fronts.

Posted by John Nack at 2:08 PM on October 12, 2008
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