Stupid software can ruin even the greatest of products

My company has over time acquired a few Fujitsu-Siemens workstations, some models of the Esprimo series, and some of the Celsius series.

They are all decent computers, they are doing their job admirably under the tough circumstances, and although their cases are really ugly (see below), they have good thermal design. The power supplies with passive cooling and the air flow guides on the processors make them whisper quiet, which is really nice.

The Esprimo PC series from Fujitsu-Siemens. The front panel is badly designed and uses very poor quality materials.

I have included a slightly larger detail of the front panel because that’s what has been causing me headaches since I begun working here. Note: The images above are copyrighted material. I have “borrowed” them from and composited them for illustration purposes.

The microphone and headphone connectors on the front panel are incredibly poor quality and it usually takes just a few plugs/unplugs to break them completely useless. The user then has to unplug the cable of the monitor speakers from the back panel and try to use that connector for his/hers headphones. Which theoretically should be fine.

Except the ass-wipes programmers at Realtek (or who the hell they are outsourcing to) thought that is really a no-no. You can plug your headphones in each and every connector on the back panel, the internal speaker is not cut off and there’s no sound in the headphones at all. And then there’s this really annoying popup (if configured, which it is by default) that keeps asking you what device have you just plugged in. But the best part is that, despite the fact the dialog allows you to select headphones from that list, once you dismiss the dialog it shows a tray balloon saying they don’t support that type of device plugged into that connector! This is absolutely precious!

Realtek audio software: mind bogging stupidity

The only way to restore predictable behavior to the back panel connectors is to completely uninstall the Realtek software and drivers, then update the drivers from Microsoft, through windows update.

Unfortunately this is not a 100% reliable workaround: it worked on two of the problem computers, but not on a third. I still have to find a failsafe solution to this…

The only time I remember having to deal with software created by such incompetent jerks was a few years back, when Crenguţa was still employed, and her employer bought an HP scanner (sorry, I don’t remember the name and model, but I’m fairly sure it was a low-end one — not that this could be an excuse). It lacked the most basic functionality like saving the scan settings between sessions, so you had to re-set each and every knob for each scan, because even the default values were so stupid they were unusable. That, together with a clumsy and ugly web-based interface that was running in a defaced instance of IE, were making even the simplest scan a pain in the ass. So although the scanner was of decent quality, the bundled software was rendering it almost unusable.

I cannot help thinking about the iPod, as surprising this association may be for some. The hardware is not rocket science, let’s face it. The industrial design (the case, the controls) is great, but the thing that matters the most in every day usage is the software. And the software is just brilliant. It has snappy reactions to every command, and there are plenty of other usability highlights regarding the user interface. The only feature I’m missing is the possibility of chronologically sorting albums of the same artist, but that’s not a big thing and is probably an indication of the many issues I have these days (speaking of issues, of course I have quickly put together a script that prepends the year to the album name — problem solved!).

What I’m trying to say is that, with all it’s great design, the iPod would have been just another device, not a great music player. And poorly designed software could have easily killed it. Kudos to Apple, everybody else take notes, especially Realtek.

Edit June 22nd: Speaking of stupid software, here’s a little supplement for you from a product very high on my personal scale for shitty software — Microsoft Windows XP.

I currently have Office 2007 fully installed, and only Word and Excel from the Office 2003 suite. Apparently not having Outlook 2003 is not a good enough reason for Windows Update to stop asking me to update the junk email filter for it! I’ve ticked the “don’t notify” option three times already, and the update available balloon keeps popping up after 3 minutes. Oh, how I hate this…

Windows Update keeps asking me to update the junk email filter for Outlook 2003, although it's not currently installed!