You just know that a significant amount of the resources that go into any new software product, and indeed, just about any product in our marketing-drenched, eXtreme, flash-valuing society, goes into the superficials. For software this means a number of special cases, since many of the "improvements" that go into an update would never be noticed by a living person other than those who disassemble the code. So product "upgrades" these days often include cases where features are rolled back, or previously-added bad features are removed (such as paperclip mascots) but the program has a non-rectangular window now, so bully. I've mentioned before my considerable displeasure at the user interfaces of Microsoft Encarta, Money, probably Streets (I haven't seen it but I'm sure it's funky), and above all the upcoming (as of this writing) Windows XP. But the most entertaining example that I can think of is the continued morphing of the icons within Microsoft Office.

For the vast majority of users, the changed icon and splash screen are the only evident evidences that an Office upgrade has succeeded. Because of this, it is of utmost importance that the new 32x32 pixel totem somehow look "better" than the old one. Sleeker. More modern. Professional. Elegant. Vibrant. Classy.

Now, one would believe that an image of this size surely has a given maximum possible value in all these categories. (Sleek: 13. Modern: 17, nice. Professional: 18, hey wow, Elegant: 5, ack, reroll, reroll!) After all, there are only a certain number of possible images possible within a 32x32 bitmap. This is true with all bitmaps, of course, but here we are speaking of such a small space that the number of images uniquely identifiable and instantly differentiable to the human eye and brain is probably measurable in the tens of thousands.

One who thought that would be wrong, alas. Because the marketing department's task is not to make program icons look increasingly better and better, but to simply offer a sizable improvement over the previous version's icon, even if that comes at the cost of other attributes, as long as the new icon looks snazzy enough in its chosen area of specialization to make the discarded qualities seem unimportant. This doesn't happen too often, because, my fevered imagination tells me, aided by my equally fevered reason, when a radical new icon concept is introduced, it is purposely kept simple so that it can be easily improved for a few software iterations, until it gets to the point where simply starting over with a new two-color icon itself can be seen as an improvement, at which point the cycle begins anew. This would explain why Microsoft went with those boxy, two-color-without-transparency icons for Office 2000. The next version will have four colors. After that eight and an alpha channel. After that, 256, and the version after that 256 with iridescent, rainbow hues! And in the version after that Microsoft will just change them all to barnyard animals or something equally random and start the procedure all over again, afterwards giving the animals jetpacks, then aviator goggles, then a superhero's uniform, and so on and so on, until the end of time.

UPDATE: The icon for Internet Explorer 6 is in a much more vibrant shade of blue than the previous, with extra little swirls and highlights in there. And so the great circle of life continues.

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