We are already one week into the third decade of the millennium — and 45 years after the debut of the personal computer — yet there remain tons of easily-computer-doable things that people are unable to easily do only because corporate powers have decided we can’t. What’s more frustrating is when we used to be able to do said things, before our ability to do them was taken away by so-called “upgrades” to our applications.
Take Facebook — please. Facebook is infamous for its now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t user-interface features, as well as its grudging level of user control. Facebook changes its news feed algorithm at will, deciding whose posts you see while giving scant regard to your stated preferences. In that vein, Facebook last year rolled out a new user interface, using the opportunity to hide the “Recent Posts” button, the only crumb of news feed control it still offers. If a user wanted to see only the latest posts from her friends, she now had to scroll down a long menu, click a “See More” button, then do even more scrolling to finally reach the “Most Recent” button. User friendly? Ha!
But this month, for some reason, Facebook has moved the “Most Recent” button back to the top of the menu.* None of these changes are accidental. Behind the scenes, Facebook gauges eyeball-time and adjusts things accordingly, user-whiplash be damned.
However, Facebook is not the only perpetrator. I have a Windows machine, and I often receive update notifications, for Windows, Firefox, Photoshop and all the various other programs I’ve installed on it. These days, I am hesitant to install any “update” lest I lose access to features that I’ve become accustomed to. Windows, for example, once had a neat little app called Windows Movie Maker. Microsoft removed it from Windows several years ago and replaced it with an app with far fewer features. (Luckily I saved the original app). The Firefox browser once allowed a degree of interface customization unmatched by other browsers, but that changed for the worse a few years ago in Version 57. It is only now that some of its lost features — like putting the tabs next to the content (duh!) — are available again, via plugins. Adobe, on the other hand, has generally been pretty good in terms of making improvements to Photoshop without taking features away. Its biggest upgrade fail was when it discontinued Configurator (a custom menu builder for Photoshop) in 2014, replacing it with…. nothing.
Every month or so, I get a notice from SyncBack — a free app that makes a daily backup copy of any new images and/or documents on my office computer — that a new version is available for download. I always click “no thanks” due to my fear of the feature-death that I’ve seen in other apps. Really, I would rather initiate all software upgrades myself, and then do only those that are security-related, unless the upgrade has some compelling, must-have improvement.
Unfortunately, in the case of web apps like Facebook and YouTube, users have no say in what version they use. The other day, I went to YouTube to upload a video that I wanted to share with family. Although I shot the video in landscape mode, somehow my phone had saved it in portrait mode. I thought, no problem, I’ll just rotate the video in YouTube after I upload it. But surprise! The video editing tools that YouTube used to provide are now gone. The only edits YouTube now offers are trims, title screens, sound tracks, blurs and subtitles — no rotation, no fades, no zooms, no stabilizing. So, I had to go back to Windows Movie Maker (yes, the app that Microsoft killed) and do the necessary rotation and fades there.
It’s not like rotating an image or a video involves an enormous amount of computation. Perhaps (and I don’t know this for a fact) YouTube would have to make royalty payments to some software company to offer editing tools for proprietary video formats. But, given the billions of hours of video (yes, billions) that have been uploaded to YouTube, I doubt Google would ever have agreed to royalties in the first place. Instead, my guess is that rotation and other video editing tools are absent from YouTube because such tools would make it easier for users to upload copyrighted media and then obscure digital watermarks. Google does not want to get sued by big media companies for violations of copyright.
And while I’m no software engineer, I think it’s possible that the video tools now provided on YouTube are intentionally non-destructive, i.e., they generate real-time overlays but do not alter the underlying video — again to avoid complicity in any copyright infringement. If this is true (and it’s not an unreasonable supposition) then the reason you can’t rotate your videos on YouTube is because of lawsuits, not technology.
Of course, it is all about money in the end. Microsoft wants its software developers to work on money-making ventures like the cloud, not desktop movie editors. Facebook wants its users to see ever more ads, so it continuously re-engineers its site to make that happen. And Allegiant Airlines intentionally decides not to provide a customer-service phone number as one of its contact options (see image at right). All to illustrate that it is not about what’s possible with tech, it’s only about the money.
Some readers may view this post as just another of those “where are my flying cars” rants. But this is different. The flying cars are there, sitting in the garage — we can’t fly them because the doors have been locked in the name of corporate profit. No, 21st-century tech does not want to be free. Tech will be paid for, individually and collectively, by the highest bidders. So be ready to say sayonara to some of your favorite features the next time you “update” your apps. As often happens, your loss will be their gain.