Emanuele Rocca

January 29, 2014

Antifeatures and Antibugs

Software Engineering distinguishes between software features and software bugs.

It is usually understood that features are positive, expected characteristics of a computer program. Features make users happy by allowing them to do something useful, interesting, or fun. Something good, anyways. Bugs are instead undesirable and annoying. You're sitting there at your computer writing a long email and the software crashes right before your email is sent. Bad stuff.

Features are generally implemented by programmers on purpose, whereas bugs are purely unintentional. They are mistakes. You don't make a mistake on purpose.

We might at this point be inclined to think that: i) what is good for users is done on purpose by software manufacturers; ii) what is bad for users was not meant to be. It happened by mistake.

Here is a handy table to visualize this idea:

  On purpose By mistake
Good Feature  
Bad   Bug

It seems to make a lot of sense. But you might have noticed that two cells of the table are empty. Right!

In a great talk titled When Free Software isn't better, Benjamin Mako Hill mentions the concept of antifeatures, and how they relate to Free Software.

Antifeatures are features that make the software do something users will hate. Something they will hate so much they would pay to have those features removed, if that's an option. Microsoft Windows 7 is used in the talk to provide some examples of software antifeatures: the Starter Edition does not allow users to change their background image. Also, it limits the amount of usable memory on the computer to 2GBs, regardless of how much memory the system actually has. Two antifeatures engineered to afflict users to the point that they will purchase a more expensive version of the software, if they have the means to do that.

I have another nice example. The Spotify music streaming service plays advertisements between songs every now and then. To make sure users are annoyed as much as possible, Spotify automatically pauses an advertisement if it detects that the volume is being lowered. A poor Spotify user even tried to report the bug on The Spotify Community forum, only to find out that what she naively considered as a software error was "intentional behavior". A spectacular antifeature indeed.

Whenever a piece of technology does something you most definitely do not want it to do, such as allowing the NSA to take complete control of your Apple iPhone, including turning on its microphone and camera against your will, that's an antifeature.

  On purpose By mistake
Good Feature  
Bad Antifeature Bug

Both bugs and antifeatures are bad for users. The difference between them is that antifeatures are engineered. Time and money are spent to make sure the goal is reached. A testing methodology is followed. "Are we really sure customers cannot change their wallpaper even if they try very very hard?"

Engineering processes, of course, can fail. If the poor devils at Microsoft who implemented those harassments would have made a mistake that allows users to somehow change their wallpaper on Windows Starter... Well, I would call that a glorious antibug.

  On purpose By mistake
Good Feature Antibug
Bad Antifeature Bug

There is no place for antifeatures in Free and Open Source Software. Free Software gives users control over what their software does. Imagine Mozilla adding a feature to Firefox that sets your speakers volume to 11 and starts playing a random song from the black metal artist Burzum every time you add a bookmark, unless you pay for Mozilla Firefox Premium Edition. The source code for Firefox is available under a free license. People who are not into Burzum's music would immediately remove this neat antifeature.

I have spent many years of my life advocating Free and Open Source Software, perhaps using the wrong arguments. Mako's talk made me think about all this (thanks mate!). All these years I've been preaching about the technical superiority of Free Software, despite evidence of thousands of bugs and usability issues in the very programs I am using, and contributing to develop.

Free Software is not better than Proprietary Software per se. Sometimes it is, sometimes it's not. But it gives you control, and freedom. When it annoys you, when it doesn't do what you expect and want, you can be sure it's not on purpose. And we can fix it together.