20 August 2012

Version control

One of my favourite cinematographic scenes is in Men in Black, in the room with all the impressive outer-space technology when K turns to J and says “This is gonna replace CDs soon; guess I’ll have to buy the White Album again...” I love this scene because it points to some forms of expression and art being timeless. I guess I am the kind of person who enjoys certain films, songs, games and books in a way that will stand up to time, I actively enjoy watching Zulu, whether it’s on the TV, VHS or DVD, and will probably enjoy watching it in 30 years time on whatever format we use then. The issue then is, with the exception of the transition from DVD to Blu-Ray (as a Blu-Ray player plays DVDs as well), titles are continually re-purchased. Looking at my dad’s music collection, I can see the same tracks on vinyl, CD, MP3, and I know there was a tape in the late ’80s that perished after far too many summer days in the car.

I accept that progress happens, I also accept that an iPod stores far more music by volume than a tape, and that it’s unlikely to melt in the car. I also get that any machine that accepted all possible media formats is more likely to resemble a creation of Dr. Emmett Brown than something you'd like to install in your living room. However, when I look at my professional life, I find this need for multiple versions incredibly frustrating.

On my desktop right now 3 separate versions of Adobe FrameMaker are installed (7.2 running on a virtual XP machine, 9 and 11). I have access to every version of MS Word (and Office) since 1997; I still have the discs and licence for all of these “just in case” a client has a specific requirement. There are serious issues with this need to keep slightly different software iterations around “just in case”. The small box of discs that I started out with in the ’90s is now a “software cupboard” where licensed software is stored just in case it could one day save the world (almost like a software “man drawer” ). This need for a cupboard, and the virtual machine, is partly generated by software companies not building in true backward compatibility – yes, I can open an old file in a new version of the software, but once I save it, it can never be opened again by a client who’s not invested in the same version of the software. The current solution is the cupboard, but I am becoming increasingly enthralled by the various “cloud” approaches out there (Adobe and Microsoft both have offerings in this category).

The theory with the cloud is that I get access to whatever the latest version is (including patches/service/support) for a monthly fee rather than a single, and sometimes intimidating, one off cost. I feel that there are many advantages in this approach, and the version number could almost be set aside to instead be replaced with the knowledge that for a a monthly cost, I am always up to date. I feel that subscribing to a rolling “cloud” based programme would do away with the software cupboard in the long term, although I am deeply concerned that the companies putting these offerings together should be aware that occasionally professional technical communicators may need the ability to roll back their installations to handle “legacy clients”.

I’d quite like comments on this post, especially from anyone involved in or experienced with the type of cloud based systems we’re considering subscribing to.


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