Whether to support a piece of technology is often a difficult business decision. But the business case for or against support should not ignore mainstream technical standards.
All the chatter over the recent revelation that Best Buy was dropping CDs from its stores made me think about the way that we shut off support for different kinds of services.
The CD carries a degree of nostalgia, but from a functional perspective, it’s been replaced by other technologies. You can get music more easily over the internet nowadays, and if you really still want a CD, there’s always Amazon or some other retailer.
As I wrote a couple of years ago, the idea of dropping official support for platforms is akin to game theory, in that you consider your own business goals along with the impact they have on your users.
But there’s a right way and a wrong way to drop or limit support for something, and it’s arguable that Best Buy is handling it well. It’s going to make some folks mad, but it’s ultimately sound business in an era when the format is in decline.
the resources question
So, if that’s the right way to drop support for something, what’s a good example of the wrong way?
Well, I recently caught wind of a Twitter comment made by the tech company Slack, responding to a user who pointed out that one of its features did not work in Firefox. The company’s response? Bascially, it doesn’t have the resources to support the feature in Firefox.
“It requires significant effort for us to build out support and triage issues on each browser, so we’re focused on providing a great experience in Chrome and our desktop apps,” Slack said on its official Twitter account. “We are listening to all feedback, though.”
This comment hit close to home for me. See, my browser of choice is Opera, which in many ways is a different take on the engine Chrome uses. About a year ago, Slack made the decision to drop its support for Opera, which literally blocked access to the entire tool for Opera users—a move that struck me as surprisingly user-hostile.
If your dev process is based on specific tools rather than specific standards, you’re doing it wrong.
(My response? I switched my user agent using an Opera plug-in, and my browser basically pretends to be a version of Chrome. I’ve been happily using Slack in the year since, with zero errors.)
Slack has a whole page on its website talking about why it chooses not to support certain browsers or operating systems. The company even prevents Apple Macintosh users on certain versions of the operating system from using its tool—even if they’re using it from a web browser it otherwise supports.
“We want you to have the best experience of Slack that you possibly can,” the company writes. “If we aren’t actively fixing issues or bugs in these browsers, your experience will suffer and we want to avoid that completely.”
That claim rings somewhat hollow considering the sheer size of the company. Slack has an estimated valuation of $5.1 billion, and when it comes down to it, the company produces a single product. So it’s hard to believe that it cannot devote resources to making services and features available for operating systems and browsers that wouldn’t be considered obsolete, that in fact follow the same standards as Chrome.
The company later tried to walk its argument back by emphasizing that it could add more browser support later on. But even if it does that, the whole process feels backwards from a development standpoint, and if it had started from a different place, its users would likely be happier.
When Standards Are Pushed Aside
Slack has the financial resources to support all these platforms—it just chooses not to. Imagine if every company did that.
Actually, you don’t have to imagine. If you were an internet user two decades ago, during the “browser wars” between Netscape and Microsoft, this probably sounds familiar to you. During that era, the browsers often did not support the same technologies, which meant that many developers only supported one browser over another—and forgot to see if the other one worked. Testing was an afterthought. The web, as a whole, suffered for it.
Slack’s moves to ignore standards-supporting browsers evoke the bad old days of the web and threaten some basic digital principles. And that thought process should be a serious consideration for any company looking at its tool in the future.
My concern is that a lot of organizations make their decisions about what to support the way Slack does. They choose it based on what they’re using or what’s the most popular, rather than on official standards. Sure, it makes things a little easier, but it also locks you—and your users—into those technologies and creates a whole lot of negative ripple effects down the line. If your dev process is based on specific tools rather than specific standards, you’re doing it wrong.
Now, love CDs or hate ‘em, the great thing about them is that they work basically the same in 2018 as they did in 1983. That’s because the people who produce them follow a book of standards, so that CDs work just about everywhere, with very few edge cases to worry about. And even if Best Buy gets rid of them, you’re not locked into that retailer’s CDs—you can always buy someone else’s and they’ll work just the same.
That’s why standards are important—and why they should guide your development process.