The law of low tech standards

Reviews of Mac OS X Lion have generally been glowing. (Naturally, John Siracusa’s Lion review for Ars Technica contained some criticisms, but even Siracusa had a surprisingly soft touch, I thought.) I have talked to many novice users who are delighted with it.

And yet I find many major faults with it. Why? What’s my problem?

Technology is almost always reviewed by comparing it to previous incarnations and its competition instead of what would actually be ideal. Explicitly or implicitly, both users and reviewers tend to ask “Is it better?” instead of “Is it good?” We are all chronically prone to accept less than we should — and more so all the time — because we have been trained to do so by so many disappointments that the shittiness of technology has become a given and a joke. Over the years we have learned that most product manuals are well nigh incomprehensible, most products fall apart shortly after their short warrantees expire, and Apple’s generally higher standards are the freakish exception rather than the bare minimum we should expect, to the point where it seems ungrateful and delusionally impractical to expect more.

And the erosion of standards has gotten rapidly worse over the last few years, as the “beta culture” has exploded and companies foist more and more tech on the world that is actually conspicuously and deliberately unfinished.

Over the years I have become weary of the hypocrisy of the average tech user, puzzled by my curmudgeonly high standards — “ZOMG, how can you say iPhoto is a bad app?” — but they are quick to come crying to me when iPhoto inevitably corrupts their valuable photographic memories. This discrepancy gave rise to my proposed “law” of tech standards:

Tech users wait until they are personally affected by a nasty data loss before they finally begin to think critically about software quality. Until then, they will conclude that virtually any product is “really great” as long as it looks good.

Lion generally looks great. However, it does not work nearly as great as it looks — and that’s my problem.

More soon.