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When Software Jumps the Shark

Anything that evolves can misstep and jump the shark—in other words, reach a peak and then decline—even software. It’s an article of faith that software keeps improving, but does it always? Some Mac apps have definitely made that leap.

Let’s start with QuarkXPress, the app that jumped earliest—and highest. At lunch, Ryan was swearing at Quark 6 (which is what got this train of thought of mine steaming out of the station). Although our company has switched to Adobe’s InDesign, he still has to use Quark occasionally to work to work with benighted vendors in the outside world.

Back in the day, I was in awe of QuarkXPress. Version 3.32 consisted of a single executable about 4 megabytes in size that ran amazingly well on low-end hardware, which is all we had at my previous company. Now, a Quark 6.x install is over 300 megabytes (admittedly, most of that bloat is due to the help files). In all that time, they’ve assuredly changed the program, but they haven’t improved it. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when Quark jumped. I think the best version ever was 4, although I’m sure some people would hold out for 3.32.

Our next jumper is Microsoft Word. Even though I write more than ever, I don’t use Word at all anymore unless I have to, so I’m not intimately familiar with Word’s current shortcomings. I just know that every time I launch it I break out in hives. If I have to use it, I just grit my teeth and work as fast as possible. It’s done wonders for my productivity. My favorite version of Word was 5; it had just the right mix of features and they all worked! It was the infamous version 6 that jumped the shark on the Mac platform. Subsequent versions made up for the sins of 6 and recovered some of Word’s lost glory, but none have had the usability of version 5. I’m not enough of a Luddite or prima donna to continue using version 5; I just don’t need a “word processor” that much anymore. If I needed to typeset something, I think I would use InDesign or Pages and make a PDF, or it would be fun to learn TeX and DocBook. Anything but Word.

In general, Adobe apps keep getting better and better. The one glaring exception is Acrobat, which jumped at version 6. This version was so annoying that I quickly switched back to 5. Version 7 fixed 6’s most egregious failings, so I think Adobe realized they had a problem.

Thankfully, most of the apps I use all the time keep getting better and better. BBEdit is a good example. Over the years, it has acquired a metric ton of features and includes functionality that arguably doesn’t even belong in a text editor, but it never feels bloated.

It’s perhaps a tribute to today’s software that I can’t think of any other titles that jumped the shark. That’s progress, I guess.

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