the plague of bugs

Like some Biblical locust swarm, every attempt to do anything is thwarted by the dead weight of innumerable bugs! This time I was trying … and failing … to upload a Word file into Google docs. I uploaded the docx file and it said the file was unreadable, tried saving it as .doc, and when that failed created an rtf file. Amazingly from a 1 Meg word file the rtf was 66 Meg, but very very slowly Google docs did upload the file and when it was eventually all uploaded …

To be fair the same document imports pretty badly into Pages (all the headings disappear).  I think this is because it is originally a 2003 Word file and gets corrupted when the new Word reads it.

Now I have griped before about backward compatibility issues for Word, and in general about lack of robustness in many leading products, and to add to my woes, for the last month or so (I guess after a software update) Word has decided not to show its formatting menus on an opened document unless I first hide them, then show them, and then maximise the window. Mostly these things are annoying, sometimes really block work, and always waste time and destroy the flow of work.

However, rather than grousing once again (well I already have a bit), I am trying to make sense of this.  For some time it has become apparent that software is fundamentally breaking down, in that with every new version there is minimal new useful functionality, but more bugs.  This may be simply issues of scale, of the training of programmers, or of the nature of development processes.  Indeed in the talk I gave a bit over a  year ago to PPIG, “as we may code“, I noted that coding in th 21st Century seems to be radically different, more about finding tricks and community know-how and less about problem solving.

Whatever the reason, I don’t think the Biblical plague of bugs is simply due to laziness or indifference on the part of large vendors such as  Microsoft and Adobe, but is symptomatic of a deeper crisis in software development, certainly where there is a significant user interface.

Maybe this is simply an inevitable consequence of scale, but more optimistically I wonder if there are new ways of coding, new paradigms or new architectural models.  Can 2010 be the decade when software is reborn?

MS Office and the new digital dark age

I’ve just spent best part of 2 hours simply trying to print some Powerpoint slides as PDF, only to discover it is yet more of the incompetence in Office 2008 that I have previously blogged about (pain, tears and office 2008).   I was trying to get a small PDF for the web and so was printing to a postscript file and then converting to PDF using Adobe Distiller, but Distiller kept crashing with broken postscript commands (I assume it would also have failed to print on a printer).  Strangely if I printed straight to PDF it would view OK, but would again crash if I asked Acrobat to process it to reduce the file size.

After doing a lengthy ‘binary chop’ on the file, printing smaller and smaller segments, I narrowed it down to one slide, and  then a single element on the slide that of deleted made it all work OK.

I had assumed the problem would be some big JPEG image that I had imported, but the offending element turned out to be the little patterned rectangle in the center of the excerpt below.

The little rectangle is supposed to represent a screen and was constructed simply from two Powerpoint shapes, a plain rectangle and a rounded rectangle laid on top of one another.  I assume the complication was that I had used one of the built-in textures in the previous version of Powerpoint (yes backward compatibility again).  I can only assume that Powerpoint encodes these textures in some unusual way and that the newer version of Powerpoint gets confused when it comes to print them (even though it appears to display them fine).

In meetings related to the UKCRC Grand Challenge on Memories for Life, there have been frequent worries, not least from the British Library, about digital preservation, how digital materials from some years ago are hard to access today.  A key example was the BBC ‘Doomsday Book’ project that created a two volume interactive multimedia videodisc in 1986, but by 2002 this was virtually unreadable and was only just saved (see 2002 BBC News article). This was ‘just’ 15 year old technology compared to the 1000 year old original Doomsday Book that is still readable on paper.

However, with Powerpoint we are not just seeing digital preservation problems from 15 year old technology, but between two subsequent versions of the same ‘industry standard’ software on some of its most basic features (static geometric shapes).  The British Library worries about a new digital dark age … and Microsoft’s coders seem to be hell bent on making it happen.

Backwards compatibility on the web

I just noticed the following excerpt in the web page describing a rich-text editing component:

Supported Browsers (Confirmed)
… list …

Note: This list is now out of date and some new browsers such as Safari 3.0+ and Opera 9.5+ suffer from some issues.
(Free Rich Text Editor –

In odd moments I have recently been working on bringing vfridge back to life.  Partly this is necessary because the original Java Servlet code was such a pig1, but partly because the dynamic HTML code had ‘died’. To be fair vfridge was produced in the early days of DHTML, and so one might expect things to change between then and now. However, reading the above web page about a component produced much more recently, I wonder why is it that on the web, and elsewhere, we are so bad at being backward compatible … and I recall my own ‘pain and tears‘ struggling with broken backward compatibility in office 2008.

I’d started looking at current  rich text editors after seeing Paul James’ “Small, standards compliant, Javascript WYSIWYG HTML control“.  Unlike many of the controls that seem to produce MS-like output with <font> tags littered randomly around, Paul’s control emphasises standards compliance in HTML, and is using the emerging de-facto designMode2 support in browsers.

This seems good, but one wonders how long these standards will survive, especially the de facto one, given past history; will Paul James’ page have a similar notice in a year or two?

The W3C approach … and a common institutional one … is to define unique standards that are (intended to be) universal and unchanging, so that if we all use them everything will still work in 10,000 years time.  This is a grand vision, but only works if the standards are sufficiently:

  1. expressive so that everything you want to do now can be done (e.g. not deprecating the use of tables for layout in the absence of design grids leading to many horrible CSS ‘hacks’)
  2. omnipotent so that everyone (MS, Apple) does what they are told
  3. simple so that everyone implements it right
  4. prescient so that all future needs are anticipated before multiple differing de facto ‘standards’ emerge

The last of those is the reason why vfridge’s DHTML died, we wanted rich client-side interaction when the stable standards were not much beyond transactions; and this looks like the reason many rich-text editors are struggling now.

A completely different approach (requiring a  degree of humility from standards bodies) would be to accept that standards always fall behind practice, and design this into the standards themselves.  There needs to be simple (and so consistently supported) ways of specifying:

  • which versions of which browsers a page was designed to support – so that browsers can be backward or cross-browser compliant
  • alternative content for different browsers and versions … and no the DTD does not do this as different versions of browsers have different interpretations of and bugs in different HTML variants.  W3C groups looking at cross-device mark-up already have work in this area … although it may fail the simplicty test.

Perhaps more problematically, browsers need to commit to being backward compatible where at all possible … I am thinking especially of the way IE fixed its own broken CSS implementation, but did so in a way that broke all the standard hacks that had been developed to work around the old bugs!  Currently this would mean fossilising old design choices and even old bugs, but if web-page meta information specified the intended browser version, the browser could selectively operate on older pages in ways compatible with the older browsers whilst offering improved behaviour for newer pages.

  1. The vfridge Java Servlets used to run fine, but over time got worse and worse; as machines got faster and JVM versions improved with supposedly faster byte-code compilers, strangely the same code got slower and slower until it now only produces results intermittently … another example of backward compatibility failing.[back]
  2. I would give a link to designMode except that I notice everyone else’s links seem to be broken … presumably MSDN URLs are also not backwards compatible 🙁 Best bet is just Google “designMode” [back]

pain, tears and office 2008

Some weeks ago I upgraded Microsoft Office to Office 2008 (yes it does still have menus on the Mac!), and life since has been constant trouble.

OK first there are ‘minor’ niggles like it eating 1/2 my screen space in huge tool bars replicated at the top of every window, or eveytime I read in an Excel spreadsheet it telling me that old macros no longer work … actually I don’t use Excel macros, but f you do and have lots of spreadsheets that use them what then? … and don’t get me started in the fact that I can no longer cut and paste directly between Word and Dreamweaver.

… and then, just over 2 weeks ago, I was at the AVI conference and, as one does, writing the slides for the presentation the day before. I had produced all the diagrams for the presentation in Powerpoint and then copied them into Word, so thought it would be easy – start with the Powerpoint file with all the diagrams in it and add a few words around them – after all pictures always best. However, this was reckoning without Office 2008. The figures had been produced in PPT 2004, and when I opened them in Office 2008 half the images just disappeared. I tried opening in the old version of office, but it simply crashed every time I tried to update a file, I assume the Office 2008 install broke the old Office 2004 install in some way. In desperation I tried cutting and pasting the slides between PPT 2004 and PPT 2008, but that failed (I guess because Powerpoint thought it was pasting back into itself!). Eventually I managed to get the crucial images by cutting and pasting via a third program.

But the reason I am blogging now, rather than doing the pile of work that I need to do, is that Word has decided that about every 10 minutes it needs a 15 minute break and disappears into a little spinning rainbow – it does eventually come back, but only after several cups of tea.

To be fair most of the problems seem to be with compatibility mode … but surely backward compatibility is not so difficult … after all we have a lot of old files out here .. or if they can’t code it properly simply produce one-off converters rather than pretending to work when they don’t!

But the spinning disk has at last stopped … so back to another 10 minutes work before it halts again.