This Month: Beta Testing • Meet Mac Programmer Mike Throckmorton • Words of Wisdom From Some Readers
Hello once again, as usual, dear readers. Now that I’ve had a few months on the Internet with an access provider, and have been totally immersed in the Web, Usenet, and the like, I’ve picked up on a few things that I hadn’t noticed back during my eWorld/AOL days. Many of these things have been talked about at various times by various people in the past, but I hadn’t realized that those folks were right until I saw things for myself.
One of those things is the widespread availability of beta programs to the public. There are tons of commercial programs that are download-ready, royalty free, on the Web and on FTP servers. I have a lot of mixed feelings about this.
On the plus side, in most cases this gives the public a great opportunity to try out a program before they plop down their hard-earned cash for it. It’s almost the shareware system on a commercial level, if you will. This isn’t bad for the company, either, if they can produce a good demo/beta version. After all, nothing sells software like good reviews, especially if those reviews come by word-of-mouth from friends, co-workers, and other fellow computer users. Letting these people download beta versions of software gives them an opportunity to give product recommendations to other people before the product has even hit the shelves.
On the other hand, if the company has not made a solid, stable, quality beta version, things can be hectic. Downloading buggy software, software with faulty interfaces, or other problems can be a big pain, especially if the software causes conflicts with the rest of your system.
That is why the Internet is redefining the term “beta release.” A company cannot publicly release what would have passed as a beta version just a year or two ago. Now, companies who post their beta versions online for download must make their product stable enough and polished enough to be accepted by the Internet public, but not quite up to par with the final release version (otherwise, why would anyone have a reason to actually purchase the software?). Companies often tread a fine line between giving us too much for free, or treating us like guinea pigs to test their software for them.
Another thing about widespread beta releases is that, in some cases, it makes the actual release of the final version almost anticlimactic. (Hello? Netscape? Are ya listenin’?) Some companies are on the verge of going overboard with their beta releases, in my opinion.
For the most part, I stay away from most beta software. For me, the final release of Netscape Navigator 3.0 WAS a big deal, because I never downloaded a beta version, and didn’t really want to. If it’s too buggy to be released as a final version, I don’t want to try it. I can usually wait for a final release, and so far I haven’t been discontent with my decisions.
I admit that sometimes I will download beta software from a commercial software company as a means of trying out their titles. Another exception to my no-beta rule is with companies and shareware authors that continue to do it the old-fashioned way — that is, they use an actual beta-testing team of volunteers to do the beta-testing, instead of the entire Internet-savvy public. Taking part in these beta-testing programs can be very informational and fun. The programmers I have worked with in this regard have been courteous and easy to work with, and they also seem to really appreciate the time beta-testers put in. They can rest assured that the feeling is mutual.
That brings me to my next topic. One such programmer who has gone out of his way for a beta-tester (namely, me!) is Mike Throckmorton. Mike has authored numerous programs on various platforms, but has recently done most of his programming for the Macintosh, as part the MacUser Exclusives Utility team. I thought all of you out there might enjoy some of the words that Mike and I have exchanged over the last few months, so here they are!
WW: When and how did you get started in programming?
Mike T: In college, I was taking an accelerated program leading to a PhD in math (I was going to be an astrophysicist) during the course of which I had to take a programming course (Fortran). I started out doing horribly, but, at the end of the course (the week before finals) I finally caught on, did a lot of extra credit and managed to salvage a 4.0. The more I thought about it, the more I thought “hmmmmmm…. programming is actually fun and you get to do it in air-conditioned buildings!” so I detached myself from the math program with a B.S. and entered grad school in Computer Science (which continued to be fun and air-conditioned).
WW: Do you write any code for any other platforms, or are you Mac-specific?
Mike T: I’ve done professional programming (usually system level programming) on IBM mainframes, Unisys mainframes, PC’s, various kinds of workstations, various kinds of minicomputers, communications processors, Motorola 6800 based terminals and probably some I’ve forgotten.
I switched to Macintosh programming in 1989 because I had used a Mac+ for some time to do my taxes (thanks, MacInTax!) and it appeared to me that Apple had done something very right with the Macintosh. Plus, developing with ThinkC was absolute heaven compared to anything else I had used (which was just about everything).
WW: How did you become a programmer for Ziff-Davis?
Mike T: I’d conversed with a few Ziff-Davis (MacUser) people online for some time and at a MacHack, Steve Bobker introduced me to Ben Templin who was starting the “Exclusives” program. One thing, as they say, led to another.
WW: How long have you been writing programs for Ziff/Davis/MacUser?
Mike T: The first Exclusive I wrote was ZMakeAlias in June/July of 1991.
WW: Could you give me a list of ALL of the programs you have written for the Macintosh to date?
Mike T: Out To Launch, PreVersion, ZMakeAlias, Serial of Champions, HideAlways, QuickieFolder, DiskSwitch, Dismounter, Back2TheFolder, BackSplash, The Cheaper Image, Finder’s Keeper, ScrapBoard, Redo-it, RAM Handler, MedView (a medical image viewing/processing application, although I didn’t originate it) and a few other ones I can’t mention.
WW: Which is your most popular program?
Mike T: Probably HideAlways, although BackSplash is probably a close second. RAM Handler and Redo-it have not been out long enough to evaluate.
WW: Thanks for the information on your personal life and your own career, Mike. Now, let’s discuss programming in general. How long does it take, on the average, to write a good program?
Mike T: That question is unanswerable. So here’s the answer: anywhere from 2 days to 9 years, depending. Some people, of course, couldn’t produce a good program regardless of the amount of time spent. Fact of life.
WW: How much of the work is done when it is ready to go into beta-testing?
Mike T: I think it is best to develop the minimum necessary for a useful implementation and then get it into the hands of users, as soon as possible. The best programs, usually, are produced with immediate user feedback. Applications (or whatever) that are in development for long periods of time before being user-tested are invariably failures. The time period can be very short (hours?) but in most cases should be no longer than a few months…. tops.
The longer developers develop without reality testing against the destined users of the product, the further detached the product becomes from “reality”.
WW: If you could, walk me through the stages of writing a program.
Mike T: There are different stages for different kinds of programs. Usually, it is best to start out with defining some kind of value you intend to provide to the eventual users of the product. Part of the art of software development is choosing the correct strategy for defining, designing and implementing the product. Sometimes, the insight for a product comes in a flash, is implemented in a flash and adopted by users in a flash. Sometimes, the idea comes in a flash, is completely wrong but contains a kernel of truth which is then eventually developed to a product. Sometimes the idea comes as a flash and then takes years to develop.
WW: OK, Mike, let’s move on to the rather broad topic of the computer industry. First off, what do you think of the Internet, and the recent “explosion” of attention it has received?
Mike T: For those of us who have been living with (and coding ) networks since the beginning, the fuss of people (media people especially) just now discovering it feels strange. To me, networks and such are kind of like the air, since I have lived and breathed computer networks and communication for so long. And who ever notices the air? It’s weird that so many people have ignored the existence of such “air” for so long and it’s satisfying that things are now happening so quickly. It’s _fantastic_ that so many people have climbed aboard, because it has driven the price of modems and network access wayyyyyyy down .
WW: What about its usefulness? Is the Internet the catch-all and be-all of reference materials? Will it ever evolve into the much-touted “Information Superhighway?”
Mike T: Utility-wise, it’s like many other things: its value depends on the skill of the user. As tools improve, hopefully the _technical_ skill requirements will become fewer. Also as with many other things, the talent to grasp and reduce complexity will be key in effectively using such a morass of content and manipulation.
Nothing ever lives up to its hype… that’s what hype is, after all (something that can’t, by definition, be lived up to).
WW: What about using the Internet primarily as a means of communications, rather than as a reference or information source?
Mike T: The “Internet” (which no longer exists as such) is a grand tool for communication. Look at how other grand tools of communication have changed humankind and you can guess how the “Internet” will. Speech, song, art, theatre, watercraft, horses, written language, telephone, radio, television, movies, cars, airplanes and spacecraft. These have changed how people socialize and create. They all have leveraged the value and impact of individual human thought to the entire planet and, umm, beyond (sorry!).
Computers are of the special class of communications tools, because they allow us to model new realities, show them to others and allow others to participate in them. Fiction, theatre and movies are of the same class. Computers provide the substrate for a completely new generation of this class.
WW: Where do you see the computer industry as a whole headed?
Mike T: To the extreme, providing there exists sufficient will in the human community. I foresee the connection of artificially constructed realities with the human nervous system. This will happen eventually, if not simply to develop prosthetics to help disabled persons . This technology provides opportunity for us to do both good and ill, and you can bet we’ll do both. Things will no doubt get pretty dicey when we start moving from electronics to organics.
The only way, of course, we will get to the stars is by incorporating human personalities in extended lifetime artificial support systems, sending bunches of them along with frozen human embryos (or perhaps simply recorded DNA patterns) and the means to replicate up some humans into space and see what happens.
WW: Will the advent of such new developments as the PowerPC Reference Platform (PReP) and Apple’s OpenDoc technology change the way programmers like yourself operate? If so, how?
Mike T: Sort of. The most dramatic change will, however, be platform independence such as that provided by Java-like virtual OS-machine combinations.
WW: Thanks, Mike. Before I finish this interview, I’d like to ask you about your future plans in terms of programming. Do you have anything on the back burner, can we expect another Mac utility from you soon, etc.
Mike T: More MacUser Exclusives, for sure. Hopefully, some that let users play with new technologies without having to actually spend a lot of money for the privilege. I’ve always wanted to do a game, of some creatively new genre, as well.
Oh, and I’d like to occasionally make some contribution with the medical image processing programming I do.
WW: Finally, do you have any advice for other budding programmers out there?
Mike T: Live your profession. Don’t focus on one platform, technology or kind of programming. Have high ethical standards. And, like any kind of writing, write as much as you can, whenever you can. Oh, and write for the users of your software, not for yourself.
If you remember to pour a little of your being into every creation you create, you will always be successful…
WW: Thanks again, Mike. It has really been a pleasure working with you, both on this interview and as a beta-tester for some of your more recent programs. I’d encourage all Mac users out there to check out some of Mike’s work. Many of the programs are MacUser Exclusives, so they can easily be found in MacUser’s Software Central, on AOL (keyword: MacUser) and on the World Wide Web (http://www.zdnet.com/macuser/software/).
Normally I’d call it quits for the month after that mammoth interview with Mike. (That’s another thing I should thank him for — he was quite patient and didn’t fall asleep during my questions. As far as I could tell, anyway…) However, a couple of things were brought to my attention this past month that just couldn’t wait. Thanks to everyone who’s written to me concerning this column, and especially these two guys this month.
A few months ago, I had mentioned the presence of the MacUser software library on America Online, and dozens of people wanted to know where they could find it (myself included!). Well, it seems I was just a little ahead of myself. Although it’s kind of a moot point for me, I figure there are a lot of readers out there who would like to be filled in. Over the summer, MacUser has opened their own forum on AOL, at keyword: “MacUser.” Kudos to Trey Poore for enlightening me. Trey says their software pickings are kind of slim, but well organized and worth a look. I, of course, can’t comment on this, but I trust Trey’s evaluation. If you’re an AOL member, I’d take a look.
Also, last month I questioned the use of the pictures in the “new mail/no mail” boxes in Eudora Light. Although no one could come up with anything definite, Ron Brown ventured this guess: (No, not that Ron Brown!)
“The rooster is used to announce that you have mail because a crowing rooster just naturally sounds like he’s making an important announcement. We’re always disappointed when there isn’t any new mail, so a hissing snake (Boo! Hiss!) seems like the perfect way to signal No Mail.”
Sounds logical to me. Mr. Brown was also polite enough to point out that I mistakenly called the piece of poultry featured in the “New Mail” box a chicken. He was also quite disappointed in me, seeing that this error came from an “Iowa farm boy.” I was quick to reassure him that while I may live in farm country, I am by no means a farmer. Either way, I guess I have egg on my face. Wait a minute, eggs come from chickens, not roosters…
While I’m on the subject, let me ask you this — which came first, the chicken or the egg?
That sounds like a good question to end the month with.
Mike Wallinga (the writer guy) is keeping himself busy in northwest Iowa (not necessarily an easy task) by surfing the ‘net, keeping up on his studies, and being a co-captain of the varsity football team at his school. At the suggestion of one certain reader, he has also taken up studying poultry and waterfowl. If you have a suggestion for a topic of study for Mike (or, more importantly, a topic for a future column), or if you just want to shoot the breeze, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mike Throckmorton (the programmer guy) lives in Ann Arbor, MI. When not programming his latest, greatest MacUser Exclusive, he can be found riding his mountain bike, roller blading, playing disc golf, or playing with his children. He also does a lot of volunteer work around his community and with various organizations, and is a self-proclaimed “gullible volunteer type.” You can contact Mike at email@example.com.