Smart software: It's still stupid

Who's smarter -- you or your software? Software inevitably thinks the answer is "Me!" because it's too stupid to know better. If software were a person, it would be a big, arrogant, passive-aggressive sociopath who pretends to be helpful but actually couldn't care less about anyone else.

So sorry, Microsoft Corp., but I don't want you to upload all 80 gajillion kilobytes of Windows XP Service Pack 2 automatically -- especially when I'm stuck in a hotel and trying to download my e-mail over a slow dial-up line. Nor do I want Windows XP's lame "indexing service" to churn my disk in the background while I'm working on cycle-intensive video. Or at any other time, for that matter.

Who's the boss?

Smart software? No thanks, developers. I don't want Windows hiding file-name extensions or underused menu items because you think I'm too dumb to understand them. I don't want Office formatting my documents with bullet points I never intended. And I don't want inexplicable slowdowns that cut my productivity because something I don't know about is running automatically in the background to keep itself on life support.

I'd also like the illusion that it's my machine, not yours. Norton AntiVirus, I'm talking to you: As I was downloading a very big file recently, up popped a message saying the program needed to reboot my computer -- but offering only a big restart button, not one that let me say "wait until I'm good and ready." I simply left it up on the screen and ignored it.

While I was talking on the phone, however, I noticed a close box in the upper-right corner of the dialog box. Under the baleful influence of multitasking, I guessed that closing it must be the equivalent of ignoring it, with the added benefit of getting it off my screen.

But the minute I clicked the red X, the machine began shutting down, knocking me offline and aborting the download.

More and more often, software pretends to know what's best for you -- and then gets it wrong. Spam is making e-mail an increasingly unreliable form of communication, due in part to our reliance on not-smart-enough software filters that let junk through and whack legitimate messages. And far too much software that wants a high-speed Internet connection assumes that my notebook has one when it doesn't.

Unfortunately, it's no longer possible for most people to deautomate their computing lives. Antivirus and anti-spyware programs have to phone home for new definitions, and desktop search programs have to keep their indexes up-to-date -- and you'd probably get tired of it if they asked for permission every single time. Firewalls have to make good guesses about what's legitimate and what's not. And when they do ask for your help, you may not be qualified to give it.

Software needs to realize that it's never going to be the only program running on your machine -- and that it is not as smart as it likes to think it is.

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Stephen Manes

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