Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Challenges of a Software Legacy

Ever year as I prioritize new application development, I remind my governance committees that 80% of my staff resources are devoted to keeping existing systems stable, secure, and error free. These staff maintain infrastructure and add incremental improvements to support compliance with new rules, new standards, and new workflow requirements.

As I reflect on Microsoft's current challenges with Vista, I sympathize with their dilemma. On the one hand, the user community expects each upgrade to offer bold new features and innovation. On the other, users expect all their Windows 98, NT, 2000, and XP software to work flawlessly.

The amount of engineering required to ensure this backward compatibility is enormous and in large part explains the difficulty the Microsoft Operating System Development group has in releasing something that is boldly new.

Industry analysts point to the speed of innovation of Google or the fact that Canonical's Ubuntu is rapidly converging on the Windows feature set. Both Google and Canonical have the advantage of little legacy compatibility support.

I've experienced this same burden of a software legacy several times.

At Harvard Medical School, we introduced as the educational portal in 2001. Each year through Mycourses, we deliver 60,000 streaming videos, thousands of documents, and hundreds of simulations. Per my recent post about Educational Technology priorities, there is a desire to enhance usability and add many new features. The challenge is that we need to maintain existing features while innovating. This is like changing the wings on a 747 while it's flying. A perfect example is our Surveybuilder and Testbuilder. These web-based applications in Mycourses evolved over years based on hundreds of user feature requests. At this point, adding new features will likely break old features. Our best approach is to rewrite them from scratch, based on a streamlined set of user requirements. Thus, we'll evolve the existing Mycourses into a new portal framework, then rewrite the applications over time. This will be evolution rather than revolution. Some people will comment that our pace of innovation is slower in 2008 than it was in 2001. This is the reality of an existing legacy of highly functional software.

At BIDMC, we launched our intranet in 1998. At that point in web history an intranet was just a list of links and not a highly interactive Web 2.0 infrastructure supporting blogs, wikis, forums, and new media. In 2007 we introduced a new intranet based on many modern features such as single sign on, user customization, support for RSS feeds, and Sharepoint features. Today, of our 5000 users, 4000 use the old portal and 1000 use the new portal. Our user survey indicated that the average user just does not want to change. Learning a new portal is more effort than is justified by the new features. In 2008, we're relaunching the portal again, making the look and feel more similar to the old portal but supporting many new collaboration and content management features. In 1998, launching the intranet was simple because there was nothing to compare it with. In 2008, it's very hard because we have to support the legacy of highly functional old portal features while moving forward.

In both cases, we're leveraging our governance processes to build top down and bottom up support for change. We hope that by creating an urgency to change, a vision for the future and a guiding coalition, we'll be able to overcome the burden of our software legacies.

Thus, Vista may have its warts, but I understand the struggle Microsoft faces.


barakthecat said...

Count me as one of the 1000 using the new portal. My recent conversion came about because of my new access to OMR. As an RN, I need to use POE, OMR, INPA, and Discharge Planning, which under the old portal required me to log in to each individually. It gets worse if I need to send an email, as that is yet another log in. Using the new portal, I can log into the portal page, see any new messages, flip to the Clinical tab and have one-click authenticated access to all the modules I need. I've also personalized my portal so I have easy access to Micromedex and Up-to-Date. It's still not perfect (which I suspect you would agree with), but it's a significant improvement.

I suspect that most people don't use the new portal for one of two reasons. First - most of us use the portal to quickly get something done, and we already know what this thing is before we have even sat down at the computer. This sets up an environment that discourages exploration. I guarantee you would have the same problem with SPIRIT if it wasn't so heavily advertised outside of the portal (I still don't see the SPIRIT banner even though I know it's there). Second - you label the new portal as a beta. As I said earlier, we're all really busy and trying to get through the system as quickly as possible. Expecting the user to open the portal, click on a link to go to the new portal which then warns you with red type that it is a beta and may require browser changes and adding the site to something called a "trusted zone" will prompt most everyone to hit the back button and not return.

If you want to encourage use of the new portal, drop the beta designation (even if it is used in the Google sense), put a shortcut to the new portal on the desktop, and send someone around to the floor to do new portal training as you did for OMR. The new portal lets me get my job done better and faster, you need to sell that fact.

Anonymous said...

Vista's problems ran deeper than backwards compatability. Here are three big ones:

1. Some truly annoying features. The User Account Control feature was so obtrusive that I shut it off. Cut down on the countless alerts! Also, prune the processes down to something more streamlined.

2. Vista ran slower than XP on pretty much everything. This was the kiss of death for many power-users and computer games nuts. We didn't upgrade to see fewer frames-per-second on an expensive rig.

3. The driver support was horrible, especially for a product in deevelopment for this long. A year after the release there were still serious problems! This was not just with legacy hardware, but with expensive stuff still on the store shelves new. I went through it with a new wireless router that wouldn't work and several other examples. An expensive HP photo printer became obsolete due to lack of driver support (it went to my daughter's XP machine). Creative sound cards users lost advanced features for a number of the games they had on their systems until the Alchemy workaround was released.

After what I went through trying to upgrade two home office systems, I