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Friday Philosophy – Software being Good is not Good Enough February 5, 2010

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Uncategorized.
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In a previous Friday Philosophy on In Case of Emergency I mention that something being simply a “Good Idea” with technology is not good enough. Even being a GREAT idea is not enough. It also has to be:

  1. Easy and simple to use. After all, using that funny stick thing behind your steering wheel in a car, to indicate which direction you are turning, seems to be too much of an effort for many people. If installing some bit of softare or running a web page is more than a little bit of effort, most people will not bother.
  2. Quick. No one has patience anymore, or spare time. This will probably be the fourth year in a row I do not plant any vegetables in our garden as I need to spend a day or two clearing and digging over the spot for said veg. You can’t beat home-grown veg. Similarly, I won’t use a web pages that takes as long to load as it does to plant a carrot seed.
  3. Known about. There could be a really fantastic little program Out There that allows you to take a screen shot, add a title and comment and pastes it straight into a document for you, converting to half a dozen common formats on the fly. But I do not know about it. { ScreenHunter is pretty good, I have to say, and when I have shown it to people a lot of them like it}.
  4. Popular. This is not actually the same as “known about”. For a stand-alone application to be good for you, you just need to know where it exists. Like maybe a free building architecture package. Whether thousands of people use it is moot, so long as you can get your extension drawings done in it with ease, that makes it great. But something that relies on the community, like a service to rate local eataries, unless lots of people use it and add ratings, well who cares. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of such community “good ideas” started every day but unless enough people start to use it, it will fizzle out, as the vast majority of them do.

Point 4 is highly relevant to “In Case Of Emergency” as it is simple, quick and relativley known about. It just needs to be ubiquitous.

I became very aware of point 3 a few years ago and also of the ability for very clever people to be sometimes very stupid when it comes to dealing with their fellow humans.

I was working on a database holding vast quantities of DNA information. If you don’t know, DNA information is basically represented by huge long strings of A, C, T and G. So something like AACTCGTAGGTACGGGTAGGGGTAGAGTTTGAGATTGACTGAGAGGGGGAAAAATGTGTAGTGA…etc, etc, etc. These strings are hundreds, thousand, hundreds of thousands of letters long. And Scientists like to search against these strings. Of which there are millions and millions. Not for exact match mind, but kind-of-similar, fuzzy matches, where for example 95% of the ACTGs match but some do not. It’s called a BLAST match.

Anway, suffice to say, it takes a lot of compute power to do this and a fair amount of time to run. There was a service in America which would allow you to submit a BLAST query and get the answer in 20 minutes or so {I have no idea how fast it is now}. 

Some extremely clever chaps I had the pleasure of working with came up with a faster solution. Same search, under 5 seconds. Now that is GREAT. We put together the relevant hadware and software and started the service.  Now I thought it went beyond Good or even Great. It was Amazing (and I mean it, I was amazed we could do a fuzzy search against a billion such strings in 2, 3 seconds using a dozen or so PC-type servers).

No one used it. This was because almost no one knew about it and there was already this slow service people were used to using. People who used the old service never really thought to look for a new one and the chances were they would not have found ours anyway.

I pushed for more to be made of this new, faster service, that it should be advertised to the community, that it should be “sold” to people (it was free to use, by “sold” I mean an attempt made to persuade the scientific community it was worth their while investigating). The response I was given?

“If the service is worth using, people will come and use it”.

No they won’t. And indeed they didn’t. It was, I felt, a stupid position to take by an incredibly inteligent person. How were people to know it existed? Were they just supposed to just wake up one morning knowing a better solution was out there? The internet pixies would come along in the night and whisper about it in your ear? In the unlikely event of someone who would be interested in it just coming across it, were they then going to swap to using it? After all no one else seemed to know about it and it was 2 orders of magnitude faster, suspiciously fast, how could it be any good?

The service got shut down as it was just humming in the corner consuming electricity. No one knew it existed, no one found it, no one came. I can’t but help wonder how much it could have helped the scientific community.

There must be thousands of other “failed” systems across the IT world that never took off just because the people who could use it never knew it existed. Depressing huh?

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