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.

Join the newsletter!


Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Stephen Manes

PC World
Show Comments

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles


PCW Evaluation Team

Tom Pope

Dynabook Portégé X30L-G

Ultimately this laptop has achieved everything I would hope for in a laptop for work, while fitting that into a form factor and weight that is remarkable.

Tom Sellers


This smart laptop was enjoyable to use and great to work on – creating content was super simple.

Lolita Wang


It really doesn’t get more “gaming laptop” than this.

Jack Jeffries


As the Maserati or BMW of laptops, it would fit perfectly in the hands of a professional needing firepower under the hood, sophistication and class on the surface, and gaming prowess (sports mode if you will) in between.

Taylor Carr


The MSI PS63 is an amazing laptop and I would definitely consider buying one in the future.

Christopher Low

Brother RJ-4230B

This small mobile printer is exactly what I need for invoicing and other jobs such as sending fellow tradesman details or step-by-step instructions that I can easily print off from my phone or the Web.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?