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Those Shoes Are Too Big

The continuing saga.


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A wise and not so old guru once told a story at a think tank brainstorming session on quality assurance.

I was to give a talk in our conference room down on the ground floor. A few steps away from this room. I prepared meticulously. I ran through the presentation with my computer equipment again and again, from start to finish. Everything just worked.

Then I had staff take the computer equipment downstairs to the conference room where they set it up. I was supremely confident. And when I walked into that conference room and with everyone already seated and eagerly awaiting the presentation I had no clue what was about to happen to me.

Nothing just worked. Nothing. So where did I go wrong?

The wise and not so old guru already knew the answer - he just wanted to make sure everyone else knew it too.

Today's story begins way back in time. Over ten years ago.

Now I was there before and after Amelio was there, when things were in dire straits. My manager in a team meeting would ask 'common sense, and why is there none at Apple?' When in a rare moment all of the QA divisions would say thumbs down to shipping the buggy OS, the infamous Dave Nagel would say ship it anyways. The local community college in Cupertino (who dearly love Macs) had actually put a purchase freeze on Macs. I recall Amelio relaying a story about him trying out the new Macs at his desk and had it crash all the time; he understood there was a serious problem and tried to do something about it but unfortunately there was Nagel and others. Some engineers' attitudes was the workaround for the bug was to 'buy a new computer'. Now Nagel is off to Palm to destroy drive that into the ground.

Other infamous people were Ike Nassi (aka Ike Nasty) who was known for gauging funding from the TCP/IP stack (OpenTransport) and spending on pet projects he was dazzled with. OpenTransport later became affectionately called BrokenTransport internally.

Gil has account for dealing with these two infamous characters and others, and it is rather enlightening. I only wish he had the minerals to fire their butts.

And we need to go back even further - another ten years - to meet Steve Jobs as he was about to found his new company NeXT. Steve decided he needed the 'best of the best' for his new corporation. And he'd arrived at the conclusion that in the programming community these 'best of the best' were not two or three times better than the average grunts - but several hundred times better. And he founded his new company on this premise.

In terms of engineering and design NeXTSTEP remains one of the all time high points in computer science. In terms of system architecture it was unparalleled - and still is to this day. He didn't make much money off his project but it was a great project.

And then Amelio and Jobs meet. There's a 'merger'. And now we're back only ten years ago again. And after a full five years are wasted playing 'those good old days' with a mixture of 'best of the best' and 'the same old thing' a new product is finally to greet its market.

THUD.

And by October 2003 the signs of deterioration are already there. Legendary Avie Tevanian is already stepping to the side; OS updates have to be recalled within 24 hours because of serious flaws not caught by corporate QA. The project's unraveling.

One by one severe flaws in the system's security architecture are exposed - these weren't flaws inherent in the components themselves but flaws introduced by engineers on the spot after 1997. Engineers who thought they'd come up with great ideas but didn't take the time to think through them. And those engineers weren't held in check by anyone else either.

Some of these flaws - which represented unparalleled trivial ways to completely corrupt the OS with no hacking required - remained open for years as the engineers calmly kept dismissing alerts and claiming (unbelievably enough) that 'everything was behaving correctly and working as designed'.

It was also decided the 'kernel programming interfaces' were going to have to be adjusted one final time before the transition to 64-bit. The system's never recovered from that adjustment: people are still seeing screen remnants and other quirky things never ever seen on anyone else's platform. Not even Microsoft's.

Several of the company's own software titles started suddenly suffering seriously. The #2 killer app Mail became wobbly; the new web browser Safari was caught in the act hosing people's user accounts; the company were further found out attempting to cover the blooper up.

No wonder people started muttering 'Bloopertino'.

After running into trouble with CPU supplier IBM who just didn't understand why they should invest hundreds of millions developing a processor their client would never be buying in large quantities the company - after a cleverly placed leak to the media - announced they would leave their Power project behind and switch everything to the 'Ford Motor Company' of the industry.

And rather than take the full year to effect the transition the former head of NeXT rushed everything out the doors of the new factories in China to a shocked clientele. And suddenly things were as bad as they'd been in the days pre-Amelio. And possibly worse.

And while a new almost 'fully' 64-bit OS is announced a new gadget is announced as well: the company simply cannot survive on their thread thin demographic draconically enforced by their artificial 'dongle' of a hardware lock-in. Minor OS upgrades are instead marketed as complete new systems to get the same old customers to buy the same old OS over and over again.

But even this isn't enough. And to survive the company need to continually come out with new gadgets. And they can't survive one dud. Every last one has to be a big hit. One flop and they're done for.

And so recently they stopped calling themselves 'computer'. And instead of scaling their organisation to take on new projects they just gave everyone a second saddle. Developer support and bug troubleshooting on the OS came to a standstill as soon as one of the 'gadget' projects had a deadline or was in a crisis.

And now we're up to the year 2008. And to right before the summer Olympics in Beijing. Which by the way went off without a hitch. And suddenly this company are going to introduce a new gadget, a new OS for this gadget, and a new online service all at once.

And none of it works. None of it.

The news this week is there's a new version of iTunes available. Version 8. And whilst things seem to be going rather smoothly on the Apple side the far greater market on the Windows side is rocking in the waves.

And now we rejoin our story. It's a story told with quotes and links. Lean back and raise a glass.

Continue to Part Two ›

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