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Why do things that aren’t broken keep changing?

Question: You may know that Google in their wisdom have changed their Google mail to a new format. To some, it may be great, but to us “old fogies,” we are pissed off BIG TIME!! Why must Google change something that is NOT broke? Why also don’t they give those of us who want to remain on the old format the option to do just that? Do you know why they may have changed? Do you also possibly know if there is a way I can revert back to their “old” format?? Your help would be GREATLY appreciated.

I’m afraid you’re not going to like my answer.

When this post originally appeared, Google had just changed the layout of the Gmail interface. As it turns out, I actually get this question periodically about almost every major online service. Google, Hotmail, Yahoo! and others all go through periodic major updates, and some set of existing users get quite upset. At the time I’m making this last update to the post, it’s that’s going through a fairly major facelift.

Just about any site online or even software that we use goes through periodic changes. When they take on a major update, it’s going to upset some of its user base. It’s a cost of doing business.

And that, really, is what it all comes down to: services and software you use are, first and foremost, businesses in a highly competitive environment.

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Keeping the old version

I’ll get to why things change in a moment, but I want to address getting the old version back.

You can’t.

System updates for online services are almost always one-way – there is no option to retain or revert to the old version. In the few cases where I’ve seen it, it’s been only a temporary measure that eventually goes away.

“Why?” is actually pretty simple: maintaining the old version and the new version simultaneously is not only exceptionally costly, but it adds to the overall complexity of both and ultimately, it can make them both less reliable than simply focusing on one version moving forward.

Keeping two versions of the same thing running often just doesn’t make sense for a variety of reasons that typically boil down to cost and stability.

So, no, once an online service changes like this, there’s typically no going back.

Time for ChangeStagnation is death

Gmail is competing with Hotmail and Yahoo Mail, and all three are competing with a variety of free and paid email services available on the internet.

As a result, all of the services are continually reviewing new features and functionality in a constant effort to stay current and competitive, or even one step ahead of the competition.

Here’s the thing that most find difficult to accept: they must change. It’s a requirement for them to stay in business.

If they did not, if they simply picked a user interface and feature set and stuck with it forever, they eventually would lose their market as other systems continued to improve, bypassing them to become “better”, with new features and functionality.

That’s death for any business.

And make no mistake about it. That service that you use – even though it might be totally free to you – is a business. If it cannot sustain itself as a business, it will eventually go away.

And competition means that it must change to keep up.

Perhaps it actually was broken

One of the common arguments is that they didn’t need to change something because it wasn’t broken.

It may not be broken in your eyes, perhaps, but …

The fact is that the system may be very broken for other people who use it differently than you do or broken with respect to new features, functionality, and services that this or other providers are implementing.

One of the things that has always amazed me is the incredible variety of differing ways that people will use the exact same software or service. Often, they’re used in ways that the designers never would have predicted. And even if they had, the nuances of exactly how the service gets used by the masses often expose flaws or opportunities to make things easier that no one had even considered.

There may be things that perhaps you never run into, but others struggle with every day.

Things that the designers decide they must fix.

Because it’s broken.

“Everyone” doesn’t hate it

One of the extremely common comments that accompany this complaints is that “everyone hates it”.

Again, I say no.

Everyone doesn’t hate it.

The people making the most noise are almost certainly the people that do hate it, but the people that like it, or accept it, and move on are quietly going on about their business without notice.

Sure, you’ll see people in the support groups and forums complaining about the change, perhaps even a lot of them. But why would the people that like it even show up? The result is that the forum looks like the world is one-sided and filled with haters. The reality is that the 99% that accept or embrace the change are elsewhere, getting stuff done.

Don’t let the echo chamber fool you into thinking your opinion is in the majority. It might be, but it’s more likely not even close.

Even if I’m wrong, change is inevitable

I’ll admit that everything I’ve said above relating to “why” is conjecture and rationalization on my part. It makes sense to me, and I believe that it’s at least conjecture in the right direction, but I could be wrong.

For all I know, perhaps there really is an evil plot to see who can annoy the most people. Seems an unlikely business model, but I know that many people feel that’s exactly what’s happening.

The bottom line, though, is that it really doesn’t matter why.

Change is coming, whether we like it or not.

It’s a fundamental part of the growth of technology and society. Services like Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, and others are going to change every so often, for whatever reason. It’s not going to stop.

So you and I are left with a choice.

  • We can expend a lot of energy to resist it, get annoyed with it, or complain about it.
  • We can gracefully accept it, either as a simple inevitability or even something even to look forward to.

Me, I’ll take the second option.

And I’m sorry, but statements of the form, “I’m too _______”, for whatever fills in the blank really aren’t valid excuses for most people that hide behind them. Some, yes, of course, but for the vast majority it’s just that: an excuse and nothing more.

I’m certainly not saying that I’ll simply accept whatever the services feed me … if I don’t like what they’ve done to a sufficient degree, I have other options.

I can change services.

Don’t like what Google Mail is doing? Switch to Yahoo Mail or Hotmail. Or start using a desktop email program to perhaps insulate you from the whims of Google’s designers. ( Of course you’ll be exposing yourself to the whims of that other program’s designers instead).

But it all involves one constant.


And changing where subsequent change may come from.

Change, like winter, is coming.

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10 comments on “Why do things that aren’t broken keep changing?”

  1. Thanks Leo for the feedback. It is most appreciated.
    Guess I’ll plod on with the “change” and TRY and warm to it,

    • Actually, in a way you are. The payment is looking at the ads, and as a customer you have the power of voting by letting your fingers do the walking toward or away from a website. Everything MS (substitute the name of any company in the world) does is to make more people happy so more people buy their products or view their ads. Sometimes they just get it wrong, but that’s not because they want to throw their weight around.They simply got it wrong that time. Next time, if the product bombs, they’ll scramble like hell to fix the problems to keep selling their products. That’s just how capitalism works.

  2. Sometimes products are changed simply due to BIF technology. BIF = Because Its Fun.

    I’ve seen this many, many times in the 40 years I’ve been in EDP, DP, IS, MIS, and IT. (By the way, those are all the same industry; the name has changed many times, probably due to BIF technology)

  3. I’m glad technology has changed. I don’t have to try and shift gears while driving. I can warm up my food quickly or defrost something frozen in a couple minutes. I don’t have to pound away at a typewriter and then re-type the page because I decided to make a change. I don’t have to carry a two-by-four sized telephone.

    The trend in technology is to change things for the better. They might not get it right all the time, but I’m glad that technology does change.

  4. My G-mail contact list has been changed…..It actually makes me nourish, the screen keeps jumping up and down! If updating is necessary… Please do them correctly or don’t do them at all! Very unhappy with Google at this point in time!

    • If the screen is jumping up and down that doesn’t sound like a Gmail/Google problem at all. Sounds more like a problem with your browser, would be my first guess. Try clearing the cache.

  5. Very interesting post with a good perspective. A lot of people get hung up on their personal viewpoint and echo chambers.

    I do think you might be a bit kind about the reasons for changes. There are two others that happen in a place like Google quite regularly:
    – designers get bored of the way their product looks and feels, and want to change it to give themselves something new to do.
    – developers want to change the technology to a new one, and of course everything gets changed along the way, without any special user need.

    The best places don’t do this, or not often, but it’s definitely a factor (I’ve seen it where I work).

  6. One program comes to mind: Libre (or Open) Office. They get the job done hand have all the features of MS Office the average person needs, but compared to MS Office the interface is dull. I prefer the look of the more recent versions of MS Office. Libre Office looks and behaves much like ancient versions of MS Office and lacks the esthetics of the modern versions. Try using Libre Office for a while and tell me which you prefer. I have a feeling the vast majority would prefer Microsoft’s product. It’s much prettier and even more intuitive, but the functional differences are minimal.


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