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The Long Tail of Lost Productivity

Guy uses an analogy to the Long Tail Theory espoused by editor in chief of Wired, Chris Anderson to explain how the #Fail on the part of vendors who provide operating systems and other critical software has implications that cascade across to modern life.


Image courtesy of The Long Tail

This is due, Anderson says, to the falling barriers to entry that have existed when information was held hostage to traditional media and Madison Avenue. No longer will the constraints imposed by the need for brick and mortar shelf space inhibit small online retailers from capitalizing on potential massive markets he adds. Due in part to the forces he details, Anderson's concept itself went viral and created a commercial success - spawning a book and buzz that lasted several years.

Playing off Anderson's idea, I write about a different long tail. The long tail I refer to is to that of the aggregate amount of lost productivity the economy incurs each time a change to a software crucial to work fails or contains flaws.

These flaws can be overt, such as the Heartbleed Bug, which constitutes a security hole in the software commonly used on Internet website servers. That flaw affects many and has been well publicized.

Flaws can also be subtle and impactful in insidious ways. These include what programmers often euphemistically describe as, "Undocumented features." Other flaws come from execution; case in point is the recent iOS kerfuffle. Sometimes these flaws effect large constituencies and more surreptitiously smaller dispersed populations are impacted.

Regardless of reach when a flaw impacts software that is key to daily life and commerce, a long tail of lost productivity exists that can stretch across economies. The following rant describes one such recent drag and is an example of many that occur all too repeatedly.

I've spent a large amount of my time over the past couple of weeks trying to figure out why my Bluetooth devices no longer work connected to my PC. It has been said that "self-inflicted wounds hurt the most" and that "if ain't broke, don't fix it."

With that advice in mind, I must take full responsibility for getting myself into this predicament. Still, should this happen?

What eats at me the most is that I've been a computer geek long enough to have picked up on the subtle clues. When I saw the "helpful" hint provided by my operating system's Action Center I should have known that this was a temptation leading me toward a path that would intrigue the spirit of Dante.

The notification said that my Bluetooth drivers needed updating. I grit my teeth now as I think back on how everything seemed to be working just fine. I watched the notifications continue to appear for weeks. They wore on me.

My paranoia grew as I thought: Could there be a security patch in the update? On my next transit through an airport might my identity or vital trade secrets be stolen? What other hidden problem might the update cure? Wariness finally got the best of me. I made the fateful visit to the suggested site, downloaded and installed the patch.

The next thing I know my external keyboard and mouse no longer work. Thus began my descent into the concentric circles as I spiraled down to that great frozen lake of technical disillusionment.

The Cliff's Notes of this story - that is if I can trust the information gleaned along the often misguided passage - are that the vendor of the operating system for my PC was forced by market pressures to rush to an update of their much advertised "Next Generation" interface. They were putting back features of the old interface that had been eliminated; forced to do so when the market wasn't as willing to embrace the "upgrade" as had the vendor's marketing research imagined.

The rush to market of this "dot release," which was automatically deployed to millions of devices across the planet, cascaded a rush within the development ecosystem of other vendors. Impacted are those companies whose software touches, rides upon or are influenced by the operating system. Many responded in time; others evidently did not.

In my case the Bluetooth driver at the website I was directed to by the Action Center had not been updated for the new patch. Much to my chagrin, the software is incompatible with the new patched operating system. Evidently, the manufacturer of the Bluetooth driver hadn't gotten the memo.

Just as likely, it may be that the Bluetooth driver vendor has commitments to its customers. Like all companies large and small they must plan ahead for the uses of their resources in part based upon those commitments. The turnabout by the behemoth vendor of the operating system forced hard choices: Redeploy resources or take the lumps of not reacting.

Unfortunately for me, their lumps now extend to my lumps. I'm sure my lumps are shared with untold numbers of my fellow traveler consumers who may have followed the same "helpful" advice.

For some reason I am unable now to revert to a driver that works or a previous good configuration. It became for me a journey that included numerous hours scouring websites, numerous calls to voluminous helpline telephone numbers, lots of well-intended but inaccurate advice, hours of inane on-hold music awaiting to speak to an expert, and other frustrations I will not impose upon you.

Along the way I had many attempted helpful conversations with also as frustrated support people. But, how do you stop your descent? Can you stop? What does it mean to stop? As techies we believe that there is always an answer if you look hard enough. After all - its code!

So here I am, just one lost soul; on the Long Tail of Lost Productivity. The tail extends from the hours I have wasted and to that of all of you others out there who have either pursued solutions or who just take the lost functionality in stride. Forced into submission, we must incorporate the lost productivity into our now less efficient work processes. We may feel that we are experiencing this individually, but we are not alone.

The persistence of these situations stems from the fact that in the past our inconvenience was contained into millions of individual trouble tickets, useless phone calls, valiant but fruitless self-service sessions, and other attempts at restitution.

Countering this today is another allegory to Chris Anderson's Long Tail theory. It is the ability for individuals to communicate more globally than in the past. This gives us a way to attack this problem.

Our River Lethe is social networking technologies. I am lucky to have this forum to decompress my angst. Others use forums including Twitter to signal their displeasure (hashtag Fail). My hope is that as more of us use these forums to expose our discontentment we will force more companies to take increased care. Eventually the long tail may begin to wag the dog.