Schools of development

I was thinking to write about how software is made. First, I'll start by describing three methods of developing software. I am sure there are more, and someone has probably written books on this, but hey, this is an informal medium. Here they are:

  1. The "wait until its perfect" school. This approach believes that software needs to be "done" before it is released to the public. Done is defined as having all the conceivable useful features, polished to a gleam, and of course "bug-free" (see my previous posts on that fallacy). These products tend to take a really long time to come to market, generally miss their opportunity since someone with a slightly lower standard than "done" has beaten them to the punch and worst of all, they spent so much effort on getting things perfect they forgot to actually try the product out on real people and make sure they weren't missing the boat and adding things no one cared about. Several now-distant competitors to Office products followed this school (one of my favorites was the release of a Japanese word processor that touted its new version was based entirely on a component architecture! Talk about ivory tower and completely disconnected from customers, who couldn't care less about the architecture - not only that it was slow and a memory hog, like most componentized software)

  2. The "we'll just release a new build" school. This version develops software that sort of works, then sends it out for feedback as version or whatever. They get some feedback, make changes and make a new build with a slightly higher build number, like In fact, they make a change and produce an update whenever they hear about a problem. This software usually never actually ships - it just gets slowly better although often only in increments. In fact it may never make a great leap in innovation, since it is constantly in a state of trying to get closer to a specific goal. The response to any problem is simply "we'll just release a new build". This approach is fine for hobbyists or low-usage scenarios, where the customer or user doesn’t mind updating their software all the time, or redeploying to their few machines (e.g. servers). It doesn’t work so well for mass-market software due to the cost of deploying the new build being prohibitive for many customers, and because the channels for getting updates to "normal" people are poor. Also end users expect a product to at least have the appearance of "done" - no one buys a TV that is still under development.

  3. The "ship early, ship often" school. This is the one that most client software that Microsoft makes has followed. The theory goes that if you try to plan too much before you ship your first product (wait until its “perfect”), you will not be able build a truly useful product since you don't really understand who your future users are yet and what they will find appealing in the product. So the best thing is to get something out there, understand what is appealing and what isn't from the “early adopter” feedback, then ship another version that responds to that feedback as soon as you can. Typically, version 2 starts before the feedback from version 1 comes in, so version 2 is usually a polish of the partially misguided version 1, and version 3 is the real re-work to make the product what its prospective customer base really wants. This is where the "Microsoft doesn’t get it right until version 3" axiom comes from. One strength of this school is that it generally beats out the "wait until its perfect" school in the Darwinian world of the free market, since it gets access to real world feedback and goes through more generations than the "perfection" approach does, resulting in a product optimized for real customers sooner.

For OneNote, I wanted to do things differently. It seems obvious, but I wondered why we couldn't ship "version 3" the first time around. Why ship the product before getting substantial feedback on whether it was the right set of features - in fact even a worthwhile product or not? The standard answer is that to do so would be following the “wait until its perfect” approach: you couldn't get substantial feedback until version 1 was more or less design complete. If the user feedback showed massive changes were needed, you'd essentially be skipping version 1 and going on to version 2, taking way too long to get something out for the real world usage that you really need. I agreed, but I felt that the problem that forced the skip to version 2 was that the standard Office way of developing software did not bring in user feedback soon enough. In fact usually broad user feedback is accepted only late in the process, to determine if the software is stable and works well in the huge variety of real-world configurations. The design has been locked down early on. Of course usability tests are done on the designs and they are adjusted to make them work in the lab, but getting deep feedback from real people in real situations is hard for Office - even sending out a beta to hundreds of thousands of people only generates feedback from a few thousand. There are reasons for that - a lot of it is just that people assume we know what we are doing and don't question the design of features even when they don’t work for them. I could go on about the difficulty of getting beta feedback another time. But for OneNote, we decided to try to do things differently, which I'll talk about in my next post.

Comments (19)
  1. Christopher Hawkins says:

    I am on the edge of my seat, chief…don’t keep me waiting too long. I’m a sucker for a good "development methodology" story.

  2. Another eye-opening post. Thank you. I look forward the next rendition 🙂

  3. In the bag tonight: Less bitch’n and whin’n. Counts:Blogging: 8; Dev: 22; Otherwise: 8; SQL: 5; WILY: 8. Line of the night:

  4. Anonymous says:

    You forgot the "If it compiles, ship it" school, which is more common than most people think.

  5. Louis Parks says:

    "a lot of it is just that people assume we know what we are doing and don’t question the design of features even when they don’t work for them"

    I think another reason is that people have given feedback in the past and have seen nothing come of it. For instance, many have complained for years that OE has an NNTP client but Outlook does not. Every new release of Outlook continues to shout to those people that Microsoft doesn’t care about that issue. I’m sure there’s a reason that the Office team considers good for not including an NNTP reader or <insert feature here>, but Microsoft generally isn’t transparent about explaining why things aren’t included.

  6. Louis, it’s possible that’s why only a few thousand people provide feedback, but I don’t think it is the main driver. I don’t think we actually have data on that one yet. My feeling is that most people who install it are just so overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the product that they just try out what they used to do last version and can’t find problems, so they don’t give feedback.

    Generally, the beta is offered at a time when few design changes can be made in the main Office products, since it is in a stabilization phase. This is a mismatch of expectations, since the beta testers often assume they can get the whole design changed, or a significant part. The design feedback was taken earlier usually, and the broad beta for Office is more about stability.

    The newsreader point you raise is typical of a continuing request that hasn’t fit the scope of a particular project yet. Someday its time may come. There isn’t always a good explanation for why things are not done – sometimes there is no time, sometimes it doesn’t make the cut compared to other issues, and sometimes a feature doesn’t fit the theme for a release, meaning it is hard to talk about broadly to customers. Certainly the Outlook team has heard that feedback.


  7. Bill Gates II says:

    You completly ignore the fact that Microsoft used undocumented features in it’s API to defeat rival software applications. You sir are slime.


  8. Alex Aguilar says:

    I must admit I adhere to approach 3), the Princeton method or "Forward Motion" as Joel Spolsky refers to getting it functional and working the bugs out later.

  9. Robert Björn says:

    Something that I’ve wanted in Outlook is proper support for IMAP. Every release I’ve tried, it has sort of worked but not completely. For example, in Outlook 2002 I don’t think there was a way to automatically put sent messages in the remote Sent folder. I think a service pack might have addressed this but I didn’t try it. In Outlook 2003, this is indeed possible — but it also appears to store the sent message in a local Sent folder as well. I haven’t done extensive testing and perhaps there is a way to get this working (I don’t use IMAP any more, for this reason) but it puzzles me, IMAP support has never quite seemed to work just right in Outlook.

    Anyway, I’m babbling now and got a bit off topic. I liked the article, as always!


    Robert Björn

    Stockholm, Sweden

  10. Alex says:

    This page has been appeared on one of the idiot magnets, namely, Slashdot. Soon you may see a few idiots making stupid accusations all over again.

  11. Jonathan Buzzard says:

    Actually winding the clock back to 1995, and comparing Word 6.0 to WordPerfect 6.1, and WordPerfect was a much superior product. Last time I looked Word still had not aquired the equivalent of WordPerfect’s "Make it Fit" expert. Sure you can fiddle manually with margins, font sizes, line spacing etc. to make that letter that has gone a couple of lines on to the second page fit on one side again. However this antiquated compared to bringing up the Make it Fit expert selecting one page and clicking on OK. Which takes about 20 seconds maximum. An invaluable tool for some one sending out letters all day long. Lets face it short documents such as letters etc. must make up well over 90% of all documents created in Word.

    Back in 1995 all the grammer checker in Word could do is complain about my documents being in the passive voice. Of course they where in the passive voice, I had just spent ages specially crafting them in the passive voice as they where scientific reports. On the other hand with WordPerfect, I could select a check box and it told me when stuff was not in the passive voice.

    The reveal codes feature can also be a god send when things go wrong. Remember Word reformating your entire document because you changed printer! Also don’t get me started on Ami Pro which licked the pants of both Word 1.0 and Word 2.0 for Windows.

    Word did not just succeed because it was a better product, because it was evidently not. It succeed because a perception was created in peoples mind that it was better through marketing, and because Microsoft was able to lever its monopoly in the operating system to maximize the small advantage it had, and used the propriatary formats to lock you in.

  12. Chris, besides its ease of use and features, the one thing that stunned me about OneNote was that it was so well-developed for a first version app — much like seeing a 17-year old with big breasts. Moreover, the outlining features were not perfect, but they were better than virtually any product out there. Finally, what sold me was OneNote’s import/export abilities. I save all essential content and files as text files (call me nuts, but it’s a universal format and UltraEdit is a fantastic text editor), and when the content I created in OneNote not only exported perfectly to my text editor, but also to Word, then I was sold right there. That ability alone saves me as much as 20-45 minutes over an entire day (12-14 hours in my case). The only factor that slowed my purchase was OneNote’s exhorbitant price — 37% more than MS Office S/T on the street — which forced me to wait two months to save the money.

  13. C. J. says:

    I was surprised that nobody made reference to Richard Gabriel’s "Worse is Better" Essay. 1. is what he calls "the Right Thing" and 2. & 3. are versions (I think) of what he calls "Worse is Better." 3. is ‘WiB’ done right, 2. is done poorly.

    C. J.

  14. Jonathan, although WP has some good features and some that Word doesn’t have or that are better than Word’s, I couldn’t disagree more with your characterization of history, and the bookcase full of awards outside my office for "best word processor" starting from 1990 onward humbly disagrees with you as well. Feel free to read more about this in my more recent posts where I go into extreme detail on this topic.

  15. Zaine, I don’t know if you are located in US or Canada, but if you are I hope you took advatange of the $100 rebate. Thanks for your support.

  16. Dylan says:


    Is there anyone blogging on MSF issues at present? I find your descriptions of how your work on Word and OneNote progressed tantalising in what they don’t say about practical implementation of MSF principles.

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