Software woes, software heroes

We made a decision today to scrap the email groupware software we’d been using – SproutIt Mailroom – and move over to something hosted on our own servers. We’d struggled with some of their features in the past, but the straw that broke the camel’s back turned out to be an upgrade to an AJAX-based system yesterday; in an effort to make it fancy (it auto-detected whether you were on or offline and acted accordingly) the developers appeared to forget basic principles of usability. Or functionality. In fact, it refused to send any email at all.

Luckily, we kept a backup of all our support email, and it turns out a number of emails slipped through the cracks and weren’t replied to at all. Not a massive number, but any at all is more than we’d like. We would like to apologise to anyone who’s been waiting for a reply from us, reassure everyone that we’re now using a much more robust system that we have full control over, and warn anyone else from using SproutIt Mailroom.

The problem with AJAX is that it isn’t actually completely reliable; sometimes the asynchronous messages that power the technology never reach their intended destination, and the Javascript and server-side scripting needs to be able to deal with that. There are also countless usability, browser and functionality issues – how do you link to something on an AJAX system that never reloads the page? We would never, ever build an entire system that depended on it – there always needs to be a fallback to traditional web processes. And we would certainly never launch a system that wasn’t fully tested on paying customers. Free betas are one thing; a level of flux is expected. A paid service, particularly something like group mail, is mission critical and should be treated as such.

Meanwhile, I’ve been running Kubuntu using VMware Player for a couple of weeks, and I love it. It’s a really useful testing environment (the KDE web browser, Konqueror, has the same engine as Safari, which allows us to ensure everything works great for Mac and Linux users at the same time). Because only the VMware Player is free, I needed to create my own configuration file; luckily, John Bokma has written this great tutorial, and has even kindly shared a selection of empty virtual machine disks to play with. I now keep Linux in the background and flip back and forth between operating systems many times a day. If only I could get the same thing running with Mac OS …

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