I picked “Antifeatures” from a crowded slate of good-looking sessions strictly because one of the speaker’s blogs, Revealing Errors
Benjamin Mako Hill didn’t waste time getting to his premise: our usual cost-benefit analysis w/r/t free and open source software is flawed. We often evaluate software on the basis of cost per feature. On that analysis, Hill’s 1990 Linux machine fared poorly, supporting 20 CD drives, none of which was stocked by the computer hardware store. Hill suggested, instead, we evaluate software and hardware not simply on which has more features but also on which has fewer antifeatures.
An antifeature, as defined by Hill, is like a feature. It requires effort and adds functionality. It’s just functionality that no consumer would ever want. It’s functionality a consumer might pay to have removed, if possible.
Bugs are not antifeatures, just mistakes. The lack of a feature is not an antifeature, it’s just a missing feature. Poor implementation is not an antifeature.
He set up four classes of anti-feature, disclaiming that they aren’t definitive and they aren’t without overlap:
1. Features that extract money from the user.
- You had to pay to get your name unlisted from the phone book. Arguably, it required more work and more material for phone companies to include you than remove you, but your phone number was worth money to them packaged in lists for advertisers, so they passed that cost on to you
I’m referring to phone books in the past tense here and I don’t really know why except I can’t remember how many years it’s been since I used one..
- Spyware / Adware. The basic version of Kazaa (and also the video encoding software, DIVX) came bundled with spyware called Gator which reported your browsing activity, recorded parts of your credit card number, and issued pop-up advertising. Byte-for-byte, Kazaa contained ten times more spyware than useful software. Both DIVX and Kazaa charged users for professional versions of their software which were functionally the same except they didn’t include the spyware/adware.
- Sony VAIO. A terrible laptop, pre-installed with so much junk trial software, VAIO applications, and games that some users reported crashes from the very first boot. Sony offered a “Fresh Start” program at point-of-sale which would remove all of the junk to (in their words) “conserve memory and processing power while maximizing overall system performance right from the start.” For fifty freaking dollars. Stay classy, Sony.
2. Features that segment the market.
- Airline price points. Airlines have priced their tickets in order to determine exactly how much a given customer is willing to pay and then extract it.
- Microsoft Windows NT Workstation / Server. Microsoft made several appearance throughout Hill’s talk. In this case, Workstation cost $200 and Server cost $800.00 but were byte-for-byte the same except that Workstation contained code that would update one bit in the registry to limit incoming TCP/IP connections to ten.
- Six editions of Microsoft Vista. Vista Starter only allows three GUI applications open at a time. Hill wondered here (paraphrased) how the engineer tasked with writing this antifeature code lives with herself.
- The Canon G7. The Canon G6 could shoot RAW files. The Canon G7 had better hardware and better software but could only shoot JPEG. This was to push customers toward Canon’s line of digital SLRs. Users had no trouble hacking the firmware and re-installing that functionality. In a world where there is any freedom for users, Hill noted, antifeatures are very hard to sustain.
3. Features that create or extend monopolies.
- Panasonic Lumix. A firmware upgrade “protected” you from third-party batteries, turning off power management in order to leave users scratching their heads wondering why third-party batteries are so terrible.
- Dr. Dos 6.0. Microsoft detected its installation and threw up all kinds of error messages, leading users to believe it was incompatible with their systems. This one went to court.
- The battery authentication market. Hill said that this is the dystopian future: software companies waging war on each other inside your computer, a war where the user is collateral damage.
4. Features that protect copyright.
- SimCity’s list of high scores. Printed with extremely low contrast in order to deter photocopying. This measure also made it impossible to read.
- Dongles that prevent software copying. Hill: “How do they sleep at night? No one has ever purchased some software and said [disappointed] ‘I got the new version of the software and there wasn’t a dongle!’”. Billions of dollars are poured into making computers less good at what they’re naturally good at.
- DVDs & DRM. “Basically every kind of antifeature.” Encryption, watermarking, region control, licensing, can’t skip the first track, etc.
He concluded that freedom has practical benefits. It may not be a methodology toward faster software, better software, that crashes less. But even when proprietary software works perfectly, exactly the way proprietary software engineers want them to, they don’t work perfectly the way the users want them to.