Time to update the software user's bill of rights

More than a decade ago, an IBM researcher proposed a computer user's bill of rights. Ten years later, we need to lower our expectations.

We don't really buy software, we rent it. And like lessees, we don't call all the shots when it comes to how--and how long--we use the programs we "buy."

Exhibit A: Microsoft cut off free support for Windows XP and Office 2003 last April. I don't recall the programs coming with expiration dates.

We don't even control when Windows and some of our applications update. More than a decade ago, IBM researcher Clare-Marie Karat published a Computer User's Bill of Rights. (Read more about it in a 1998 BusinessWeek article and on researcher Theo Mandel's site.)

1. The user is always right. If there is a problem with the use of the system, the system is the problem, not the user.

2. The user has the right to easily install software and hardware systems.

3. The user has the right to a system that performs exactly as promised.

4. The user has the right to easy-to-use instructions for understanding and utilizing a system to achieve desired goals.

5. The user has the right to be in control of the system and to be able to get the system to respond to a request for attention.

6. The user has the right to a system that provides clear, understandable, and accurate information regarding the task it is performing and the progress toward completion.

7. The user has the right to be clearly informed about all system requirements for successfully using software or hardware.

8. The user has the right to know the limits of the system's capabilities.

9. The user has the right to communicate with the technology provider and receive a thoughtful and helpful response when raising concerns.

10. The user should be the master of software and hardware technology, not vice-versa. Products should be natural and intuitive to use.

Clare-Marie Karat, Ph.D., Psychologist
IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center
Hawthorne, N.Y.

I wonder what life is like on that planet? Here on Earth, computers don't work anything like that. So with apologies to Dr. Karat, here's my real-world software user's bill of rights.

1. The user has the right to a computer that's actually ready to use within 10 seconds of turning it on.

2. The user has the right to use the computer without unnecessary interruptions from the system or its software and components to install updates. With the exception of critical security or reliability updates, all patch notifications should appear only after a long period of inactivity or when shutting down.

3. The user has the right to software that has been thoroughly tested outside the lab and that is verified not to conflict with popular third-party utilities, particularly antivirus and firewall programs.

4. The user has the right to free, complete, and up-to-date documentation for every commercial program. All freeware must include documentation that describes how to use all of the program's features, although freeware users may be expected to pay for individual support.

5. The user has the right to stop any stalled process immediately and resume normal use of the computer.

6. (I will simply reiterate Dr. Karat: "The user has the right to a system that provides clear, understandable, and accurate information regarding the task it is performing and the progress toward completion.")

7. The user has the right to timely alerts about any security holes discovered in software or hardware and to timely patches for those holes--but only within the guidelines stipulated in Amendment 2.

8. The user has the right to transfer any personal data--such as e-mail archives--from a discontinued product--such as an e-mail program--to an alternative product that's still supported and updated, and to do so without losing access to the data.

9. The user has the right to a trial period for all commercial products and to a full refund before the expiration of that trial period for any reason and without question.

10. The user has the right to know that any information a vendor or developer collects about them is never shared with any entity--even in an "anonymized" aggregate form--without the user's express consent. The user has the right to revoke all personal information and to be assured that all such information is securely erased.

I don't live on that planet either, and I probably never will. Maybe this is the year I make wishes instead of resolutions.

About the author

    Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.

     

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