I've now spent a few weeks with Netscape Communicator 4.0, the latest all-in-one release of Netscape Communications' browser, Web page editor, mailer, and more. I've come to the conclusion that although there are many very nice features in Communicator 4.0, I need to "downgrade" back to Navigator 3.01 - until Netscape comes out with a more reliable maintenance upgrade to Communicator.
Netscape certainly isn't the only culprit - other software vendors have similar problems. It makes me wonder whether software in general is simply getting less reliable.
Most recently, my company has experienced a spate of incorrectly saved files in the latest release of Microsoft's productivity suite Office 97. When we reopen a file, we often discover that it's subtly different from what was previously saved - a disturbing development.
I don't think my company is the only one that's experiencing rampant unreliability of software. I often get notes from others talking about mysteriously messed up e-mail messages, Web sites, documents, and even corrupted databases.
A zen koan: what is the sound of software being upgraded too quickly?
Making life easier
I know what it sounds like among the users: it's a low, persistent moaning as the realisation sinks in that the backup is corrupt, the brochure text is messed up, and the browser has crashed yet again.
The problem is widespread in the industry, and we in the intranet market are particularly susceptible. With intranet products, software companies seem to feel compelled to release new upgrades at a dizzying pace.
The result is just what we're starting to experience - software upgrades that are all about keeping up with the Joneses or adding the latest 37 features that everyone insists must be in the program.
No one ensures that all outstanding bug reports are addressed in the next release, and many companies don't seem particularly interested in users even reporting problems.
There's a tremendous pressure on companies to release the holy grail of software each time. Witness how Netscape was lambasted in the press a few weeks ago, not for the reliability of its latest release, but because it failed to include support for parts of the Java Development Kit 1.1.
In my company, every so often we go through what I like to call "reality check days": we look at all the software and applications we're loading on new machines as they're added to the network and ask ourselves what, if any of it, actually makes life easier and better.
My brother-in-law, who is very wired, told me he recently gave up and has stopped using e-mail completely. Not because it's too complex, but because he can't get it to work reliably in his office and he's tired of trying to fix the network, hardware, and software problems. Now he requests faxes instead.
I'm not advocating that we all shut up shop and go back to scratching messages on clay tablets, but I am asking users to step back and have a "reality check day" of their own. What pieces of your enterprise network are actually living up to their hype? What is actually helping your organisation be more efficient, to work more intelligently, and to compete more effectively in the market? The answers might just make you wait before upgrading to the latest and greatest software releases.