It’s time for a rant. Those sensitive to ranting should avert their eyes and go read something else today. But for those of you who enjoy such things, read on.
I have brought this up here and there over the past year on The Linux Critic, but I think it’s time I actually just dedicated a full discussion to it.
There’s a disturbing trend that I’ve been running into everywhere for a while now, and I feel that it’s worth a rant. I’m talking about the tendency of developers committing what I consider to be the cardinal sin of software:
Thou shalt not release a new version that has fewer features than the previous version.
This is the kind of thing that spins me up to no end, and I’m seeing it everywhere. It’s time more attention got brought to this problem, because it’s really running rampant.
I really, really don’t understand
Whenever I encounter this phenomenon, it always seems to be accompanied by statements like “We’re trying to simplify the user experience” and “This project is too bloated, so we decided to streamline things”.
Inevitably, the end result is something that is frustrating in its lack of features that I have grown to find useful, and is almost never “simpler” or “streamlined”. In fact, the opposite is true in most cases.
The thing is, when you remove features, you then force users to find other ways — which always end up being more complicated — to do what they need to do with whatever application/interface they’re using.
Take, for example, the one that has bit me most recently, PCManFM.
Now, I won’t lie, I’m a picky guy. Any of you who read this blog regularly would know that. Very picky, especially about my file managers. Worse still, I was spoiled by years of using Konqueror as my primary file manager, so I know how powerful a full-featured, well-designed file manager can truly be.
Needless to say, I ditched KDE when the KDE team decided to drop acid and go in a baffling set of directions that didn’t coincide with what I considered to be a user-friendly desktop experience, and along with it the now broken and hobbled Konqueror file manager, which sent me on a hunt for a replacement in my now non-KDE universe.
Thunar wasn’t terrible, but two things about it drove me nuts, namely its lack of configurability (for example, no way to shut off the delete confirmation dialog, which is always a FAIL in my book) and no tabs.
Yes, I’m hung up on tabs in my file managers, but again, after years of using Konqueror in KDE 3, I found I really miss them when I don’t have them.
Likewise, I also found that XFE was promising, and more configurable, but it too was sans tabs, and some of its default behavior was frustrating. For example, if you’re in a folder that has a lot of files in it, and you’re in detailed list view, right clicking in that folder is impossible without actually highlighting a file, even if you’re nowhere near the file name column… the entire row, all the way across will select the file, there’s no white space. The result of this is an inability to, say, right click and select “paste” to paste stuff into that folder (because when you right click anywhere in there you’re always clicking on a file, so the “paste” option isn’t available). This necessitates going up one level and clicking on the folder and pasting INTO it, which is counter-intuitive to me and I find myself constantly stumbling over it.
I dislike Nautilus because of a long list of arguments I really don’t want to go into here, so it only made sense that I gave that a miss.
So I ended up with PCManFM. It was tabbed, fast, it was (moderately) configurable, intuitive, and my only real complaint about it was a lack of a way to turn off the delete confirmation. While this is normally a FAIL for me, PCManFM was close enough on everything else that I decided I could live with that annoyance, hoping that a subsequent version might include a checkbox or something with which one could disable this dumb behavior.
All is well, until the new version
I found that I liked PCManFM despite the “are you sure?” B.S. every time I told it to delete something. It was a relatively new project, so I was willing to forgive this, and a lack of other options that I like to see in a file manager. But for the most part, it was pretty good. Heck, in PCManFM 0.5.2 there was even an option added in the Preferences to “always show the tab bar”, which I definitely liked.
Then, recently, while I was evaluating a new distro, I got a chance to use PCManFM 0.9.5, the newest version of the file manager.
I was actually kind of excited about this. I was expecting a big leap forward, lots more options, more flexibility, a better overall file manager.
I was wrong. In fact, the opposite was true.
Gone was the tree view, which rendered the entire left pane a useless waste of space. The Preferences window actually had even fewer options, including the elimination of the “always show the tab bar” option among others.
I initially thought there was something wrong with this version that had been packaged with this distro, and I did a manual install of the newest version of PCManFM on my own… nope. Same problem. The new version was a big leap backwards in usability, and this sent me on a brand new hunt for a new file manager.
I really don’t get this, people. Why on earth would anyone look at a promising project like PCManFM and say, “Okay, for the new version, let’s make this HARDER TO USE!”?
What benefit does this have to the user? I find that the newest version of PCManFM is almost useless to me. For what it’s worth, I hate Nautilus, and that’s what I actually ended up replacing it with.
Only to find that the newest version of Nautilus removed the location bar entirely from it, leaving only the stupid, clunky, awkward, and frustrating breadcrumb navigation at the top. I discovered that I had to actually install gconf-editor and go digging through that gigantic mess in order to find a way to bring the location bar back (come on, guys, seriously… did it ever occur to you that users MIGHT want to be able to type a path in their file manager so that they can navigate to something that you’re not showing in your borked, oversimplified default view?).
But even with all this (and the other long list of things I hate about Nautilus), it’s still more usable than the new PCManFM is. And that’s sad.
My file manager rant is only one example. This tendency to remove functionality and features from software is all over the place. Hardly any app I use anymore doesn’t suffer from it. Heck, I just read yesterday that Firefox 4 will have the menus hidden by default, requiring a hack that is likely beyond the average user to bring them back.
How on earth is this “simpler” and “easier to use”? I find this baffling. Yes, I’m not an “average user”, but generally speaking, for basic usability functions, if I have to go into Firefox’s “about:config” in order to fix their broken interface, it’s a severe FAIL. This doesn’t simplify anything, this complicates it.
It drives me nuts to find basic things like this missing in new versions of applications. It’s like being a concert pianist and every six months or so your piano is replaced with a new one that has fewer and fewer keys on it.
Eventually all we’ll be able to play is “Hot Cross Buns”. Won’t that be great? It’ll be SO MUCH SIMPLER and STREAMLINED!
I just don’t get it, folks.
So here’s my plea, in case any developers who are jumping on this feature assassination bandwagon happen to be reading this.
Please stop. New versions should be better for the user, not worse. For programs in particular that are lacking functionality (like PCManFM), there should be MORE configurability and flexibility, not less.
Repeat after me: Removing functionality doesn’t simplify the user experience.
Here ends my rant on this subject. Take it how you will, people. It had to be said.