November 26, 2014

How Not To Install Software

It's that time of the year again, when everyone and their pony puts on a sale, except now it seems to have started much earlier than the traditional Black Friday. Needless to say, this is the only time of year I go around buying expensive sample libraries. One of these libraries was recommended by a friend: LA Scoring Strings - First Chair 2, a cheaper version of LA Scoring Strings. It's $100 off, which is pretty nice, except that the page that describes the product doesn't actually have a link to buy it. You have to click the STORE link, and then buy it from there, because this is a completely obvious and intuitive interface design (it isn't).

So, after finding the proper link in the Store and verifying I am actually purchasing what I want to purchase, they give me exactly one payment option: Paypal. This is pretty common, so we'll let it slide, and the whole process seems to go smoothly until they give me my receipt. On the receipt page, they gave me a link to download the files, and a serial number. How helpful! Until I click the download link, which does not open in a new window, and instead opens a completely different webpage with absolutely no way to get back to the page I was just on, because there is no store page with this information and I have no user account on this site. So, I have to go to my e-mail, where they have helpfully e-mailed me a copy of the receipt (probably for this exact reason) to get the serial number.

I then go back to the download page only to discover that I am required to use their stupid download manager in order to download the product I just bought. There is no alternative option whatsoever. So I download their stupid download manager and it magically installs itself somewhere on my computer I will likely never be able to find because it never asked my permission to do anything, and then demands that I log in. Well, obviously, I don't have a log in, and no one asked me to register until now, so I go to register, which helpfully opens my web browser to register... on a forum. Well, ok, so I register on the forum with a randomly generated password, and activate my account.

So naturally, they then e-mail my password back to me, which by definition means they are storing it in plaintext. So now the password to my account was sent over an unencrypted, entirely open channel, which is insanely stupid, but this is just a sample library, so whatever. I go back to their download manager and put in my credentials and... the login fails. Well, maybe it takes a bit to propagate - no, it just isn't working. I try again, and triple check that I have the password right. I log out and back into the forum with that very same password, and it still works. It just doesn't work in the application.

Standard procedure at this point is for me to take every single weird punctuation character out of my password (making it much weaker) to address the possibility that these people are pants on head retarded and can't handle a password with punctuation in it. I change my password to an alphanumeric one, and lo and behold, I can suddenly log in to the download manager! Let's think about this for a moment. The password I used had some punctuation characters in it (like "!&#*@(?" etc.), but in order to make sure it was still a valid password, I logged in to the forum with that password, and it succeeded. I then went to this application and put in the same password and it failed to log me in, which means the program actually only accepts some random subset of all valid passwords that the forum lets you register with.

This is laughably bad programming, but my woes aren't over yet. I click the download button only to get this incredibly helpful message: "Cannot connect to download servers." Pissed off, I go play a game in the hopes that once I get back, the servers will work again. I close the game only to discover that my download manager is one giant grey screen no matter what i do to it. It's forgotten how to draw it's own UI at this point. I restart the program, and it has (of course) helpfully forgotten my login credentials. This time, it displays a EULA it apparently forgot to show me the first time around, and once I accept, clicking install successfully starts downloading the files!

Of course, once the files are installed, they aren't actually installed installed. I have to go into Kontakt and add the libraries to it's magical library in order for them to actually get recognized. I can't tell if this is AudioBro's fault or Native Instruments fault, but at this point I don't care, because this has already become the worst installation experience of any piece of software I have had to go through in my entire life.

What's frightening is that this is par for the course across the desolate wasteland that is Audio Sample Libraries. The entire audio engineering industry employs draconian and ultimately ineffective DRM security measures, often bundled with installers that look like they were written in 1998 and never updated. The entire industry uses software that is grotesquely bloated, digging it's filthy claws into my operating system and doing all sorts of unspeakable things, and there is no way out.

You can't disrupt this field, because samples rule everything. If you have good samples, people will buy your shitty sample libraries. EastWest moved from Kontakt (which is a pretty shitty piece of software considering it's the best sampler in the entire industry) to their own proprietary PLAY engine, which is unstable, bloated, entirely dependent on ASIO4ALL to even work, and prone to crashing. They still make tons of money, because they have the best orchestral samples, which means people will put up with their incredibly bad sampler just so they can use their samples, which are all in a proprietary format that will get you violently sued if you attempt to reverse engineer it.

So, even if you develop the best sampler in the world, it won't matter, because without samples, your software is dead on arrival. Almost all the samples that are worth having come in proprietary formats that your program can't understand, and no one can convert these samples to another format (unless they want to reverse engineer the program and get sued, that is). So now the entire sampling industry is locked in a oligopoly of competing samplers that refuse to talk to each other, thus crushing competition by making the cost of entrance so prohibitively high no one can possibly compete with them. And then you get this shit.

November 22, 2014

Never Reinventing The Wheel Is Anticompetitive

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.
― Philip K. Dick
Nowadays, you aren't supposed to write anything yourself. In the world of open-source software, you're supposed to find a library that does what you want, and if that doesn't work, commit a change that makes it work. Writing your own library is a bad thing because it's perceived as redundant if there's already a library that does most of what you want. The problem is that this is inherently anti-competitive. If there's only one library that does something, you have a monopoly, and then you get Heartbleed, because there's zero diversification. However, if I try to invent my own wheel, I'll just be scolded and told to contribute to an existing wheel instead, even if my wheel needs to have giant spikes on it.

I'm beginning to wonder if these people actually understand how software works. Code is not some kind of magical, amorphous blob that can just get better. It's a skyscraper, built on top of layers and layers of code, all sitting on top of a foundation that dictates the direction the code evolves in. If someone invents a better way to architect your program, you can't just swap pieces of it out anymore, because you are literally changing how the pieces fit together in order to improve the program. Now, I'm sure many coders would say that, if there's a better architecture, you should just rip the entire program apart and rebuild it the better way.

The problem is that there is no one-size fits all solution for a given task. Ever. This is true for any discipline, and it is still true in the magical world of programming no matter how loudly you shout "LALALALALALA" while plugging your ears. By definition you cannot create a software library that is constructed in two different ways, because that is literally two different software libraries. Thus, just like how we have many different wheels for different situations, it is perfectly fine to reinvent the wheel to better suit the problem you are tackling instead of trying to extend an existing library to do what you want, because otherwise you'll end up with a bloated piece of crap that still doesn't do what you want. If you actually believe that it is possible to write a vector math library that covers all possible use scenarios for every possible solution, then I invite you to put monster truck tires on your smartcar and tell me how well that works. We might as well ask the Flying Spaghetti Monster to solve our problems instead.

You want there to be several different libraries for rendering vector graphics. You want there to be many different programming languages. You want there to be multiple text layout engines. These things create competition, and as each codebase vies to be used by more and more people, each will start catering to a slightly different set of problems. This creates lots of different tools that programmers can use, so instead of having to use their Super Awesome Mega Swiss Army Knife 4000, they can just use a butter knife because that's all they goddamn need.

At this point, most coders will struggle to defend their position by falling back on the tried and true saying of "well, for most programmers, this is perfectly reasonable." Exactly what do they mean by most programmers? Because most programmers use C++, C, and Java, and are probably maintaining systems that are 20 years old and couldn't possibly apply anything they were just told in any realistic scenario. Do they just mean programmers who are making hip WebGL applications? What arbitrary subset of programmers are we talking about here? Of course, at this point, it doesn't matter, because they are literally cherry picking whatever programming community supports their opinion, and we're praying to the Flying Spaghetti Monster again.

Diversity is important. I am tired of programmers living in some fantasy world where all diversity has been eliminated and everyone follows the One True Path, and uses the One True Library for each individual task. This is not a world I want to live in, because my problems are not your problems, and even if your library is amazing at solving your problems, it probably won't solve mine. I'll go even further and say that this kind of thinking is dangerous. It reeks of cargo-cult coding and institutionalized knowledge designed to destroy creativity.

When people say you shouldn't re-invent the wheel, they mean you shouldn't re-invent the wheel if that's not what you're trying to do. If your main goal is to make a game, you shouldn't write a graphics engine. If your main goal is to make a webpage, you shouldn't write a webpage designer. However, if you just finished a game and think "Gee, that graphics engine was terrible, I'm going to make a better one," then writing your own graphics engine is perfectly fine.

Including the entire jQuery library just so you can have the $("id") shortcut is like driving a smartcar with spiked monster truck wheels down a freeway. It's dangerous, stupid, and completely unnecessary.