June 8, 2002

Commentary: Why I don't trust software reviews

- By Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
I don't fully trust software reviews, even ones I write myself. User experiences and expectations are so variable that software reviews are almost as subjective as movie reviews. Let's use StarOffice as an example.

I wrote a review of StarOffice 6.0 a day or two after the pre-release "review version" was made available to journalists. I said, right here, that it ought to be worth $50 to $100 for corporate users, but that I personally would probably keep using the less feature-rich, free OpenOffice.org version of what is essentially the same product because it does everything I need.

Note the word "I" in there. It's there on purpose, because a software review, especially of a user-level piece like StarOffice, is really an account of one person's experience with that software. Note, too, that I was flamed like mad by people whose experiences with StarOffice and OpenOffice differed from mine.

When I wrote that review, I was talking strictly about the Linux versions of StarOffice and OpenOffice, and I was speaking from the viewpoint of someone who has been using previous versions of StarOffice for a number of years. I took a brief, "Yup, it loads and seems to work okay," look at the Windows version on the one Windows partition we keep around the house for things like that, but did not go deeply into the Windows side of StarOffice because, aside from the fact that I generally work while connected to the Internet and consider Windows far too insecure to use while online, I figured there were plenty of journalists out there who use nothing but Windows and would review StarOffice like mad over the next few months, so why should I add to the clutter?

So I started from a biased viewpoint, and openly admitted it in the review. Note that I have had a sterling opportunity to test StarOffice and OpenOffice beyond the usual reviewer's fast look, including their handling of MS .doc files and collaborative features, because I used those two programs to write an entire book (due out from Financial Times Press in September), and went through the entire book markup process with MS Office-using editors, glitch free. But even this experience is mine alone. A friend of mine -- an ardent Linux user -- said he had nothing but problems trying to use OpenOffice back and forth with his publisher and ended up using MS Office and Windows even though he didn't want to.

My manuscript contained embedded illustrations. So did my friend's. Both went through several rounds of editing. The (laptop) computers we use are roughly comparable in performance. He uses Debian and I use Mandrake, but this shouldn't affect the behavior of OpenOffice or StarOffice, because both programs are quite stable when running on either Debian or Mandrake.

Very strange.

Here's a StarOffice review on InfoWorld.com. Or is this really a review? It seems to contain mostly statements that could have been found in PR material for StarOffice. Indeed, I see no evidence that the author of this article installed and used StarOffice. Maybe that's because I don't read well.

Here are several other reviews of StarOffice 6.0:

Are we all looking at the same piece of software?

I think we're looking at the many ways people use a program and the preconceived notions -- biases, if you will -- they bring with them when they write a review. I don't feel my opinions are necessarily more valid than the ones Rob Pegoraro writes for The Washington Post or those Dan Farber writes for ZDNet, and I don't feel any of our opinions are necessarily more valid than those posted by readers here on NewsForge or in the ZDNet talkbacks or in "reader response" forums at other online publications.

What do you think? Are software reviews trustworthy, especially "personal impression" reviews of user-level programs? Do they help you select the software you use? Do you feel -- as I do -- that reader comments attached to a published review are a vital part of that review?

These are real questions that rarely get asked. Let's try to answer them -- if we can.

"Commentary" articles are contributed by Linux.com and NewsForge.com readers. The opinions they contain are strictly those held by their authors, and may not be the same as those held by OSDN management. We welcome "Commentary" contributions from anyone who deals with Linux and Open Source at any level, whether as a corporate officer; as a programmer or sysadmin; or as a home/office desktop user. If you would like to write one, please email editors@newsforge.com with "Commentary" in the subject line.

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