Why won't my software do what I want it to?

Mike Halsey MVP
Jun 16, 2011
Updated • Aug 30, 2011

I get a lot of troubleshooting emails from people asking how to do X or why Z won't work on their PCs. One of the common ones I get though is asking why you simply can't do something on your computer that you were able to a few years ago.

One of the common misconceptions with Windows is that it's flexible and highly configurable. Certainly compared to Apple's OS X this is the case but only really where the desktop and the major interface controls are concerned. Under the hood it's certainly the case that Windows is much less configurable than previous versions. It's more locked-down with security features such as User Account Control (UAC) and facilities to prevent rootkits from accessing the kernel OS.

It's the same thing with Microsoft software too, especially Microsoft Office. You can still write macros for it, if you understand the languages and coding structures involved, but some if not many of the nuance control that previous versions of the software gave us have been removed.

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Some people might argue that the Ribbon UI has hidden many features and now made them harder to find. While this is true to a certain extent, many people would argue it makes previously hidden features much easier to access.  The simple fact remains though that Office and other software have been streamlined and are less configurable than perhaps some people would like.

So why is this and is it a good thing? I've been watching this and have spotted a trend. The types of people who ask this question grew up with computers in the 80's and early 90's. This was a time when you would have to write code or enter a program before you could get a computer to do anything when you switched it on. The sky was the limit but you really had to know what you were doing.

As computers became more powerful and, more importantly, as they became more user-friendly, they had to appeal to much broader audiences; billions of people around the world were beginning to use them after all. This resulted in much of that nuance control being taken away and the computer users of the world being given software that will do so much, but only so much.

Now some of the emails I get are really probably people saying they'd like X or Y feature to be added. This would count more as product development than anything else, but some genuinely miss controls that have been removed.

So is it a good or a bad thing that we now have a situation where our control over the operating systems and software we use is being eroded? There is certainly a very strong argument from a security standpoint and Apple customers long ago stopped complaining about a lack of customisation options in OS X. For Windows though, which is renowned for being exceptionally tweakable, is the lack of control becoming a problem?

The argument then must be that in order to make software more usable for the many more people who will be using it, especially with packages such as office suites which will predominantly be used by non-technical people, they need to be simplified.  This would inevitably result in some of the more advanced controls being either removed or very deeply buried.

Computers today aren't really anything like the computers of yesteryear, they're more just productivity tools and the lack of control and customisation reflects this. Those who really want control over their computer need to learn how to program so they can write code, macros and programs themselves.

Perhaps this is what people are missing then? As we've gotten more used to using computers for productivity, and as the operating systems and software have got more friendly, we've forgotten the subtle art of programming, a skill we honed on those early Commodore Pets, Apple IIs and IBM PCs. This all leaves me wondering if the answer is really still the same as its always been, but we're all too comfortable now to bother.


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  1. Scott said on June 16, 2011 at 9:43 pm

    It sounds like people want it both ways. They want the ability to customize their computers, but don’t want to have to learn anything new: “Don’t make me program. Just let me customize my software environment.” It’s a lot like when people use templates to make their documents look good and expect their word processor to also make their writing read well, too.

    Unfortunately, there is a tendency for software writers to dumb down software to the point that it is only friendly to complete novices, leaving more experienced users to do without.


  2. webfork said on June 16, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    Evidently this configuration vs. simplicity thing will be with us into the future. That’s certainly the case in the cell phones right now between the two major operating systems.

    Android devices are infinitely tweakable and hundreds of programs on the Android market are dedicated to tweaking out power, user interface, security, and other features. Negatively, I’ve had to install a program that prevents many programs I install from auto-starting and Android’s experiencing a growing number of malware programs showing up on their marketplace. It reminds me very much of Windows XP.

    On the flipside, my iPhone has none of these problems but is almost totally unconfigurable. To do any kind of tweaking on iOS I have to “jailbreak” it and probably void my warranty (if not from Apple than for the additional warranty I bought). Want to develop software for it? You’ve got to get it vetted before you can put it on your own phone. It works with very few accessories — even USB extension cables — and although iOS has more software programs than Android, there’s a whole library of freeware that iOS lacks. Software with a GPL license has been completely removed from the Apple download area so any innovations coming from the Linux side of things won’t find their way to your iPhone. (Thanks but no thanks VLC.)

    My iPhone is secure, it works, and its simple while my Android device carries configurability, tweaking, and awesome freeware. Its a familiar situation.

  3. Anonymous said on June 16, 2011 at 3:04 pm

    And here is another reason some of us don’t want to upgrade. I’m using MS Office 2003 (using Excel and Access, not Word) and plan on upgrading never. I’d rather have Office 2000. The more control MS takes from me, the less I want their newer products.

    Have to wonder what Windows 8 will allow the user to tinker with. I don’t think I should have to learn programming to make changes to my system.

  4. sefcug said on June 16, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    I am old enough to remember the days when you had to do your own programming. In fact, I had an Osborne portable computer (no hard drive, only dual floppies) that I used for years, and it was the only way to get anything done.

    Now I have an XP desktop, a Vista laptop, a Windows 7 desktop, and run Ubuntu in a virtual machine. I can get a lot more done more easily with these machines. If I really want to get into the inner workings of the OS I can, but don’t usually.

    I take part in several computer user groups and most of the members just want to have software that does what they need. They have no interest in programming for themselves.

    That said, there are a few who do get into programming, especially those who worked at IBM in the early days, and started with TRS-80s.

    For the most part, the people I know are only interested in getting done what they want done.

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