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Is over-engineering of applications becoming endemic?

Sitting squarely in the firing line for news announcements heralding the ‘next breakthrough application update’ is a tiring business sometimes. So many improvements, augmentations and enhancements seem to constantly be rolled out, it just makes me wonder if we are seeing an over-engineering process becoming endemic.
Written by Adrian Bridgwater, Contributor on

Sitting squarely in the firing line for news announcements heralding the ‘next breakthrough application update’ is a tiring business sometimes. So many improvements, augmentations and enhancements seem to constantly be rolled out, it just makes me wonder if we are seeing an over-engineering process becoming endemic.

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You know that thing where your Dad used to be able to replace his own car engine and service the thing from top to bottom with just a quick reference to a well-thumbed hardback manual? Nowadays of course, he’d barely be able to change the oil on the latest BMWs and the like as they simply have too much engineering in them – and this in itself means that there’s more inside to go wrong of course.

Is the same thing potentially happening with software application development?

I have recently come to know, love and appreciate Skype. Last week I was sent a note saying that Skype 4.1 has now “gone gold” and that, “Skype 4.1 includes features such as screen sharing and birthday reminders and also includes further refinements to audio and video quality.”

Now I have two problems with this.

Number 1) I replied to the PR with the question “when will these enhancements be available for Mac?” – and no clear answer was available. Not their fault I suppose, developments on the Mac are always behind PC.

Number 2) Birthday reminders and add-ons like them are NOT IMPROVEMENTS! If I get one more Plaxo (oh please lord why did I ever sign up for this monstrous pest) birthday reminder I will go bananas. This is over-engineering, this is software project managers thinking, “Hmm, what fairly useless changes can we make to a product that will make people think it has been refined and enhanced?”

The same thing goes on at the toothbrush factory doesn’t it? Product development managers convinced us to buy toothbrushes with a special bendy arms and side bristles. So next they decided to stick tongue scrapers on the back of them and convince us that we should have been using these for years right? It’s over-engineering – and some of it is fairly useless.

There’s a great Mitchell and Webb sketch here that sums this problem up perfectly.

I mention all of this in the context of the forthcoming Office 2010 review workshop that some of us are being invited to attend this week. Will Microsoft improve Office 2010 further, or will they over-engineer it? As a Mac user, I won’t get to know about it for three years anyway until they port it will I?

When Office 2008 did emerge for Mac it was criticised for over-engineering certain functions like the toolbox, which jumps off the main menu to sit in a floating box. I’m OK with this as it’s a bit like the wacky multi menu boxes that we deal with in Photoshop and InDesign, so I can see why they did it. But it’s pretty damn close to over-engineering a function that worked perfectly well when it was sat in the main tool bar.

Are we getting some applications so close to perfect (alright, not perfect, but REALLY good) that to put them through the enhancement process repeatedly may over-engineer and quite simply mess things up. I mean, look at what happened to Vista.

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