Mediocrity in products

There is no substitute for mediocrity.
It sounds rather ugly to say that, but it is quite true. There is nothing like mediocrity in products to cause anger and frustration. There is nothing like mediocrity in service to cause chaos and lost business. Not even intentional deception has the same effect; after all, obvious crookedness leaves open the possibility of corrective legal action through police or court powers. But who ever got arrested for being mediocre?

Mediocrity is all around us today. Mediocre students are admitted to formerly "great" schools. Then their mediocre work is given a high grade by their mediocre professors. (Actually, the mediocre professors are busy doing mediocre research. So they let mediocre teaching assistants substitute for the "real" teachers.) Excellence has been defined downward so that almost anyone can claim to have it. Last year Harvard University gave out over 50% of their year 2000 end-of-term grades as "A", according to several newspaper reports. Yet science scores for high-school seniors dropped several points over the past five years, according to the NAEP proficiency tests. The bar has been lowered, and students are performing down to expectations.

What about the products that these mediocre graduates are producing? Are they great products, or mediocre ones?

In the last few years, several Nobel Prizes in the field of economics have been handed out to professors who have written long essays and complicated analyses on the topic of "differential information." This is the idea that in some economic transactions, the seller often knows a lot more about the product than the buyer. (There could even be a few cases where the buyer knows a lot more than the seller, but this is very rare.) Nowhere is the buyer/seller knowledge ratio more extreme than in a computerized or high-tech product like software. This means that standard economic assumptions about "open markets" and "price equilibrium" and "competition" don't carry much weight in the software marketplace.

In the "old days" when most products were based on the laws of nature instead of the man-made structures of software code, the difference in knowledge between buyer and seller was generally small. A purchaser of grain or beef generally knew what to look for and usually knew the person who was doing the selling. Even today, a competent automobile buyer can use Internet research or a diligent examination of print journals to find out a great amount of information about the desired brand and model of car or truck to be purchased. (If you really do your homework, you might even know more than that recently hired salesperson over there....)

But pity the poor buyer of software products. Not only does he or she usually have little or no experience as a professional coder, but somebody keeps "moving their cheese," so to speak. Somebody (a certain monopolist comes to mind....) keeps changing the ground rules every few years, constantly ensuring that their sales staff knows far more about what their products really do, than even the most well-informed buyer among the general public. No matter how much a typical person tries to find out from reading journals or chatting on the Web, the real innards of the product remain out of reach.

Products are now designed to have the outward appearance of excellence, but inside they are chaotic pieces of junk. (Small wonder the Windoze source code is "secret" -- it's obviously an embarassing kludge.) So how is anybody going to know if a product is mediocre or not, when they have no consistent standard by which to measure quality? If the market is monopolized, how will they have enough information about alternatives to compare the relative quality of these products?

To top it off, it can even be considered illegal to find out such details! Yes, the decision to apply copyright rules (which ought to be limited to for-profit selling instead of restricting the customer examining of machine codes) in the software business means that it may be a federal crime to look "under the hood" of a piece of proprietary software to see whether it's any good or not. So unlike the buyer of a used car, a corporate or individual software purchaser typically cannot bring along a software "shade tree mechanic" to check the product's internals and verify the salesperson's claims.

It is a shame that those high-flying Nobel economists didn't get a chance to testify in court as to the effects of proprietary, closed-source software in a monopolized market such as the mediocre PC operating system market. They would have been able to explain why the monopolizer of such a captive market is not likely to be dislodged when it is illegal to even check the product to see whether the hype is based on reality or not.

For the software buyer who wants to be sure about what they're getting for their dollar, that leaves only three choices: Code it yourself, use open-source products, or find a non-monopoly product that you can trust. Since few people have the time and the talent to code for themselves, open-source products look more appealing. But these products still involve a significant investment in resources by an enduser to understand what's "under the hood." Ideally, all software should be open-source, just as music is, and just as literature is. I can look at each word of the Bible or Shakespeare or War and Peace and decide for myself whether it is great literature or not. Being able to read the contents of a product is not necessarily tantamount to giving it away.

But until everything becomes open-source, the next best thing is to find a software vendor who depends on quality to survive, instead of leaning on its monopoly to enforce the secretive, cloaked world of closed-source codes. If you're going to buy a closed-source product, make sure it's from someone with integrity.

I wonder what those economists would have written about the vast difference in product knowledge between a software coder and the typical federal judge.... Yes, as the recent court results are beginning to show, mediocrity is a pervasive feature even in the justice system. Microsoft will continue to "play possum" and pretend to be humbled by the court decisions. But the champagne corks are popping all over Redmond as the monopolists continue to celebrate their victories against consumers, and against the excellence that would have resulted if the PC software business was an open market instead of a captive market. Anyone who thought that mediocrity could be abolished through the legal system should now consider themselves re-educated.

Tom Nadeau


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