The Soft Underbelly of Hardware

CanoScan N1240UWhy is the software that ships with digital hardware so frequently bad? When you buy a scanner or a printer, for instance, the software included in the box that allows you to interface with that hardware is, virtually without exception, some of the most poorly designed and difficult to be found anywhere.

I was reminded of that this evening when I spent a fruitless hour trying to reinstall scanning software for a CanoScan N1240U that I’ve had for several years. This software is categorically horrific. Even its most recent versions seem as if Canon is living in a Mac OS 9 world; scanned files cannot be named with spaces, and are restricted to thirty-two characters in length. The interface is hopelessly out of date (even though it was never particularly consistent, even, with Mac OS 9’s look and feel) and difficult to use. What’s more, the software comes in two obscurely named parts: CanoScan Toolbox and Canon ScanGear — can you guess the difference, and intuit which must be installed before the other? Neither could I.

The Hard Cash Is in the Hardware

Granted, this scanner is several years old, but I have an Epson Perfection scanner at the office that’s of more recent vintage whose software is almost equally awkward. In fact, I’ve had similar experiences with all kinds of peripherals, whether scanners or printers or digital cameras (imaging products seem to be the most severely afflicted in this way). And I’ll bet I’m not alone.

CanoScan Toolbox
Above: Push my buttons. The truly horrific interface of the CanoScan Toolbox software is my scanner’s way of telling me it doesn’t want to be used.

Why is this? Well, the answer is pretty clear: these companies are in the hardware business, and absolutely no direct revenue is generated from the software which they are obliged to ship with that hardware. In this market, consumers base most of these hardware purchases on the fit and finish of the object itself, and its specifications as written up in marketing materials and product reviews — and not on how well the software will allow them to use that hardware. In short, these companies’ offerings are not seriously evaluated based on its quality, so they bring little enthusiasm to the task of producing truly good software.

In a way, I find that kind of crazy. It would be silly to discount the importance of hardware features, to be sure, but so much of the user experience of any hardware object is in the software. Good software makes for good hardware.

Most hardware companies recognize this to some small extent, but they miss the point. They will include some marginal innovation in the utility or application that accompanies their product (e.g., optical character recognition, one-touch emailing or photocopying, etc.) as a way of getting a leg up on their competitors. But they do so only half-heartedly; these software features are often poorly implemented with savagely rendered user interfaces. Just as often they are poorly supported in the long-run; any software feature that ships with a hardware product is essentially frozen in time, never to be updated, improved or enhanced aside from only the most necessary bug fixes.

U.I. for Business

Clearly, there’s an opportunity for a manufacturer of these peripherals to establish itself as a provider of fine hardware as well as truly evolved, well-designed software accompaniments. Hewlett-Packard, for instance, would have been well-advised to have purchased a small, talented software design studio rather than scraping the bottom of the barrel with its recent Logoworks acquisition, which intends to provide cheap graphic design services to small businesses. As a hardware manufacturer, does it make more sense to enhance the attractiveness of one’s products through design, or to jump into a penny ante services field?

Improved software doesn’t need to result from proprietary initiatives, either. The Common UNIX Printing System project, among others, has demonstrated that, to some extent, it’s possible for financially disinterested users to improve the reliability of third-party hardware in spite of lack of manufacturer support. Wouldn’t a million dollars invested in open source software design yield more for Canon than pursuing a go-it-alone approach in which they’re continually turning out new versions of and applying half-hearted fixes to incredibly bad software? I guess they just don’t see it that way, at least not right now.

  1. amen… flatbed scanner software, negative scanner software, and print drivers even on the mac are all generally awful. I don’t understand why the hardware guys don’t publish open apis for their hardware… if they can’t write decent software themselves why not let 3rd parties step up to the plate..

  2. Hello Khoi, your linked inline text “Logoworks acquisition” links back to the article. I don’t think you intended that.

    Anyway, all the main manufacturers of peripheral hardware will never work together the way video and audio formats will never be consolidated, because everybody not only thinks their own technology or methods are the best, they want everyone to use theirs and only theirs.

    Unintelligent behaviour that we all put up with because we don’t have much of a choice.

  3. I have a CanoScan LiDE 600F. I installed the Canon drivers, but have not used any of the application software: I use Apple’s own Image, which comes with Mac OS X and works just fine once the Canon drivers are installed.

    It Just Works, in nearly every way. No arbitrary filename restrictions, no asstastic UI—it’s everything that an Aqua app should be. The one exception is that it forces me to name the file before scanning, rather than go through a Save Panel; that’s odd. But it Does the Right Thing in everything else.

  4. Good points and defnitely true. I had a Lide 30 and the software was simply awful. Not that it gets any better with the top of the line Epson Perfection 700V scanner ($700 worth). Software is simply really instable (i had to reinstall the driver twice to make it run) and not adeguate to the price paid, so i end up using the import command in Photoshop (which by the way doesn’t offer as many features as the Epson software).
    Luckily it seems things are moving in a better direction with camera equipment. I’ve been playing with Nikon’s Capture NX for a while and i can say is that is the most accurate application to handle Nikon RAW files (well, that’s of course until the manufacturers agree on a universal RAW image format). Even if it works well, it just can’t compare to Aperture or Lightroom for GUI or simplicity of approach.

  5. It’s simple: This kind of software sucks because the companies that ship the hardware won’t pay for it. Back when I ran my consulting company I tried to get projects to build software like this, but companies were unwilling to even consider paying experienced developers to design and implement it.

    The people in charge of procuring this software to run their hardware (and that’s how they see it, procurement, an afterthought to the development of the hardware itself) want it cheap, instant, and designed by a marketing-department flunky to push their “brand” at every opportunity.

    The developers who really should be writing such software simply won’t or can’t afford to work under those terms. And could you really blame them?

  6. When I was a windows user, I just accepted this as standard. Now that I’m a mac user it appalls me just how bad it is.

    Printer and Scanner drivers are the worst, and some of the mouse and webcam stuff is pretty dire too.

    What I don’t get is how the h/w guys don’t get that without s/w the hardware is just a paper weight. It’s like selling a car but putting bicycle wheels on it. I mean the car will go, but it’s a pretty rubbish experience.

    Fortunately for the mac there seems to be quite a lot of 3rd party guys who have written good stuff for free or cheap (e.g. Steermouse) since may manufacturers don’t send out decent or any mac driver where the windows stuff is (vaguely) focused on.

    And HP does their normally horrible thing with print drivers by having you install 100 megs of rubbish just to print. On windows again I just accepted this, but now that I use macs, I’m used to couple of meg download that does everything. I really want to know why HP needs to install so much sh@Б to get a printer working.

    This is one of the reasons I’m looking forward to the iPhone. At least it should work well with my macs without worrying about installing lots of horrible badly written drives to get a simple sync working.

  7. Not quite the same issue, but I’ve been using a Sony HDR-SR1 HD Camcorder recently, it uses a format called AVCHD to store the footage but the only software that you can use at the moment to deal with AVCHD is the basic app that comes with the camera and it’s PC ONLY!!!

    Sony just announced 3 more AVCHD camcorders but still don’t support it even in their own Vegas editing software. The basic PC app that comes with it is basically on par with editing using Quicktime Pro, not quite what you would expect for an HD Camcorder!

    You’d think they’d want to let people edit the footage from these cameras!

  8. I agree wholeheartedly. I struggled for a while with the software that came with my mid-range Epson Perfection scanner. Then I found Hamrick Vuescan and it is priceless. For relatively little coin and regardless of whether the scanner even HAS a driver for OS X, this package can make any scanner sing. It’s a pleasure to use, not so much for a great interface, but because it just works.

  9. Chris: Thanks for the tip. I remember now that I saw VueScan a few years ago, but didn’t like it because it didn’t feel sufficiently Mac OS X-native. Maybe the interface has been updated, but it’s hard to tell when there are no screen shots available on that Web page.

    I wish VueScan luck, of course, but it strikes me that it shouldn’t be necessary to pay an additional US$30-70 to make the hardware I’ve already bought work better. That’s a bit like a car maker skimping on a usable dashboard and forcing drivers to buy third-party dashboards. What I’d like to see is manufacturers taking the entire user experience into account, and making their software as good as their hardware as a matter of course.

  10. Not only is the scanner software bad, their camera software is awful too. The last printer I bought (an HP) installed a gazillion items into my startup folder on my Windows machine, making everything as slow as molasses. Not to mention the software barely enables most of the things you’d want to do to photos.

  11. I recommend Vuescan as well, they have a trial download

    – much better than the canon software

    aside from Apple, most hardware companies skimp out on software design, I don’t think this will change anytime soon considering most consumers are price driven, not design driven

  12. Thanks Khoi. Knew I couldn’t be the only one completely disgusted with the CanoScan Toolbox, though I figured I got what I paid for when purchasing a sub-$100 scanner. But it seems even the high-end hardware suffers from poor software support, which is simply shameful!

    I’ve even considered designing a new app icon from scratch so I don’t have to look at that ugly blemish in my dock!

  13. Khoi,

    I have a flatbed LiDE Canon scannerand it now lives in its box in a closet; hastened by the horrible tools as well. I bought a form-feed / all in 1 printer from HP which works much better.

    The great part about it is that it senses my powerbook on the network and will scan the image and send it to the powerbook ( after you install the largely under-the-hood HP drivers ).

    It’s a very solid interface.

    Although the tool suggested above may make it possible for me to try out the flatbed again.

  14. Just to provide another example, in my opinion iTunes have always been as critical to the iPods success as the design and features of the iPods themselves.

    I know of several users who used iTunes before they even had an iPod, but then bought one because it was the best match for the software.

  15. Vuescan is only marginally better than the Epson software. It has more advanced features, which is why pros like it, but the UI is just as bad.

  16. As ben noted in passing, Apple is a hardware company, but they back it up with the best software in the business. Others would do well to emulate this, but they won’t.

    I daresay that most of the hardware peripheral vendors are going for the commodity, high-volume Windows market. Since competition is cut-throat, margins are thin, so they cut corners where they can. It seems they generally farm out the driver software to a third party. Remembering that their focus is on keeping the cost down, the software does not get the proper attention.

    In this model, everyone loses, especially the consumer. Sure, the consumer gets a $50 scanner, but price isn’t everything.

  17. While I agree that almost all OEM driver/software sucks, I take a different view for the reasons why.

    I’m certain that budgets are tight, but somehow these apps also end up with so many useless bells and whistles and extra features… especially the use of hideously overwrought UI decorations (e.g., the “Canoscan toolbox” you depict above). I think they are taking dollars that could be spent on good technology and efficient UI design and shifting it over to (a) extraneous UI decoration, and (b) extraneous useless features. The drive behind these is for them to have neat stuff to look at on the box in the store: a pretty screenshot and lots of feature bulletpoints.

    Another frequent motivation is a desire to make software that completely usurps whatever aspect of your computing world the device is intended to support: A scanner driver will attempt to be your one-stop-shop for all your image processing tasks, from OCR to photo retouching to asset management. A pair of speakers will try to replace your media player for all your audio and video. A mouse driver will attempt to be your new global application launcher.

    In the eyes of the manufacturers, these aggressive feature sets are seen as a plus. I would presume that for a great many users, the exact things you (and I) think are stupid UI disasters are in fact seen as things to be valued.

    Most people, for example, do not own anything like Photoshop, so a scanner that insists on being your image-editing program is perhaps a good thing for them. Most people don’t know how to attach an image to an email message, so if the scanner software has a button to take a snapshot right from the flatbed and into an email to your granddaughter, then that’s also to many people a good thing.

    To a Power User, these features often drag down our user experience. To a novice, however, sometimes they might seem to, or even actually, improve it.

  18. I can definitely relate to this. I have a basic, LIDE 20 Canoscan scanner featuring 3 buttons (to scan, copy, and e-mail) than on my Mac have always been completely useless. If I want to use the scanner, I have to fire off Photoshop. Which, if you just want to send a quick, silly picture of anything, is akin to hop on a Hummer to get to the grocery store next block.

    I really hadn’t thought about using Image Capture before. Sounds like something worth trying.

  19. wow, I ordered a Canon 8600 scanner, and after sitting in my living room for 2 weeks, I finally got around to setting it up last night, and was quite wrankled by the Canoscan Toolbox interface… really, quite horrid. I wish there were an alternative.

  20. I can only hope that 1 of the printer / scanner manufacturers reads this and takes note.

    This would be a great way for a company to stand out from their competition – Having a product that is a joy to use.

    It is such a joke how bad the installers & software that ships with almost all printers and scanners is.

    Surely, someone from these companies must use their product at home!?

    And don’t get me started on user’s guides / owner’s manuals. How little $$ would it create useful guides instead of the crap that is usually sent instead???

  21. Logitech’s remote controller, the “Harmony” is one of the worst in this category. The all-for-one remote is programmed through Internet(!) with an UI that breaks all the laws of usability.

    Classic wizard example:
    “Do you turn this device (a computer) off? -> no.”
    “Do you have a remote controller for this device? -> no.”
    “How do you turn this device off with your current remote controller? -> ??!”. And that’s only one of the less irritating features… The remote itself is actually decent, if you don’t have to re-program it ever.

  22. Great post – Great comments.

    What kills me are wireless network cards for windows that insist on having their own connection interface. I have yet to run into one that actually works! You always end up with “windows zero config wireless” option. Why do they even bother?

    I’m so glad I’m a Mac user.

  23. What’s interesting to note is your comparison between the interface design and that of OS 9. In fact, after living in Tokyo for the past 4 years, it doesn’t surprise me that these Japanese companies still place far less emphasis on UI design than American companies do. When buying that same scanner in Tokyo, the included software CD installs no less than 5 unrelated, poorly designed applications. Each one serves an insignificant function and could have all been incorporated into one single piece of software. I just wonder, where along the management chain did the decision get approved to divide the software into so many pieces. It doesn’t serve to improve the company’s image, it only confuses the user. The concept of standards compliance and the importance of UI design and development just hasn’t sunk in yet here. There is still a ways to go.

  24. Oh god yes the Belkin USB wifi card I used was hell.
    Wouldn’t work unless you installed this red bevelled window piece of crap with a terrible redraw rate that would flash up every time you started your computer. So tedious just to do basic things in that horrible interface.

    NEVER buy one, horrible things.

    I’ve also used a usb adsl modem with Conexiant drivers that places icons on your desktop every time you start up even if you delete them, and both icons basically do the same thing and look like ass.

    Don’t have to suffer that crap on a Mac luckily

  25. I know your pain. My gripe is why companies seem to love replacing OS’ inbuilt features. Why would Kodak ship EasyShare for Mac when we have iPhoto? WHY?

  26. I have a 6 years old flatbed Canoscan LIDE scanner of some low number with the exact same software that came with it. Why? Because it doesn’t look like preschool and has an excellent interface.

    Besides I only use the “import…” section in Photoshop to scan things in anyways. :p

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