May 16, 2007

Application Stability is as Important as OS Stability

Just last week, I set off a bit of a minor firestorm over at The Apple Blog by my complaining about having to restart my PowerBook after installing Apple software updates. But what's even worse than the occasional restart is the issue of locked up applications, which can dramatically impact productivity. With the expanded move toward Web-based applications, the opportunity to lose in-progress activity looms large.

It's common practice for any seasoned computer owner to frequently save work in progress, especially when working in Microsoft Office applications, like Word, Excel and PowerPoint (sorry, Microsoft, but it's true). Hitting save while penning long e-mails isn't a bad idea either, although most modern e-mail applications, including Microsoft Outlook, have an auto-save feature. It's as if as users, we anticipate the applications will be less stable than the operating system, and could go down at any time. It's not too infrequent for me to be in the middle of launching a new application only to see it hang, and require a force quit. It's not too uncommon for me to force PowerPoint or Word to quit and hope that the next time I open the application, that enough of my work has been automatically recovered.

But now, the Web poses a new problem, and last night, I got bitten by the issue in a big way. As Web 2.0 applications move toward the Web, for example, my moving to blogging within the Web browser instead of a desktop application, hitting the Save button isn't really an option. Hitting save won't capture the state of my blog post, but instead will drop an HTML file on my desktop. Last night, near 1 a.m., I saw the Sacramento Kings had released a list of seven candidates for their head coaching position. Keen to post that to Sactown Royalty, I had written up a detailed summary, including links to Wikipedia for all seven candidates, relevant background information and recent articles. During this process, I was writing in one browser window, and opening new window tabs to confirm correct URLs and find more data. Sure enough, as I got near completion, my hard drive started to whir, my cursor locked up and my Safari Web browser was completely useless. Waiting 10 minutes didn't bring it back to life either, as I was eventually pushed to force quit and lose everything. Instead of starting over from scratch, I closed up the laptop, and went to bed.

While it's true that Apple's operating system has excellent stability, and no longer locks up the machine when apps crash, as it did in the 1990s, part of an excellent user experience certainly is the applications themselves. A buggy application that can't be relied to stay open, and threatens to lose my data, dramatically impacts the total computing experience. As more applications move to the Web, Internet application vendors should put their best engineers on the case to ensure stability.