First the cloud giveth

A couple weeks ago, a customer reported that my fonts didn’t work in Microsoft Office. I looked up his order. He had bought the fonts in 2015. I asked: have they not worked for five years? Oh no, he said, they were working fine until September 28.

So what happened on September 28?

In prin­ciple, soft­ware is bound­lessly flex­ible—just edit the source code and recom­pile. But for much of its early history, in prac­tice it was not. Why? Because distrib­uting soft­ware still meant manu­fac­turing some kind of phys­ical object as its container—like a floppy disk or device or cartridge or CD-ROM or even a book. Thus, program­mers had an extremely strong incen­tive to get things right the first time. In most cases, there would be no second chance.

The internet, of course, changed all that. The first commer­cial program I remember being distrib­uted exclu­sively online was the Netscape Navi­gator web browser in 1994. Another novelty of Navi­gator: it was the first time “beta” soft­ware—formerly a private testing phase—was made avail­able to the public. Netscape had quickly figured out that because they could issue updates at no cost, there was no longer any need to put as much time into polishing the soft­ware. Ship it now; fix it later.

Since then, we’ve climbed the ladder to what is today monu­men­tally marketed as the cloud. But really, it’s the same idea as in 1994: why finish today what you can put off till tomorrow? In recent years, Adobe and Microsoft, who make type­set­ting soft­ware used by almost all my customers, have converted their flag­ship soft­ware pack­ages into cloud offer­ings.

I could list numerous reasons why this trend is dispir­iting. Here’s the simplest: having unlim­ited flex­i­bility in issuing soft­ware updates has made these behe­moth soft­ware compa­nies lazier than ever, and their soft­ware less reli­able.

The need for continual updates is often framed in terms of “secu­rity”—the idea, I guess, is that some conjec­tural horde of hackers will take your computer hostage unless you continue to pay for updates. But consis­tent with the pattern of any protec­tion racket, the most likely risks to the stability of your computing expe­ri­ence arguably come from Adobe and Microsoft them­selves.

Before the current era, it used to be that Adobe & Microsoft would release soft­ware with bugs. But major releases were far apart, so the bugs would persist for a long time. As a solo font vendor, I could devise workarounds. Everyone could get back to doing their jobs and ignoring the soft­ware.

Cloud updates, however, have changed the rhythm. In prin­ciple, bugs can be fixed faster than before. In prac­tice, new bugs are also intro­duced faster. For instance, a year ago I got reports from a few customers that the capital I in my fonts had started disap­pearing from PDFs gener­ated with Adobe soft­ware (?!?!) After a long conver­sa­tion with a skep­tical Adobe engi­neer, I produced enough evidence for him to sheep­ishly concede that yep, it was an Adobe bug.

As for my customer who started having prob­lems on September 28? I theo­rized that there was prob­ably a buggy Microsoft Office update that went out to his computer that day. (True.) And that rolling back to the previous version would cure the problem. (Also true.)

But as a soft­ware vendor who wants customers to be mini­mally incon­ve­nienced by soft­ware chores, these workarounds are unsat­is­fying. If these compa­nies push out a cloud update that suddenly breaks my fonts, customers contact me first. At that point, I have no good advice except “wait for the next update” (until then, things are still broken) or “roll back to the previous update” (but this can be labo­rious).

So to those who subscribe to cloud services, a gentle word of caution. I’m not suggesting you should forgo updates to make my life easier. Just be aware of the alter­nate point of view: why fix what isn’t broken? Person­ally, I turn off all auto­matic updates. If I rely on a certain program for my work, I update it gingerly and only when neces­sary. Ulti­mately, cloud updates are cheap only if your time has no value.