How many bugs are too many?
by Alan Zisman
(c) 1997. First
published in Computer Player March 1997.
Have you ever wanted to be a beta tester?
Traditionally, software companies, developing new or
looked for volunteers to help them test pre-release versions of the
For the companies, this provided the opportunity to try out the product
in the real world, on a wide range of hardware, and interacting with a
wider range of software than they could ever set up in their labs.
Beta testers typically didn't get paid (Corel recently
to beta-testers who discovered new bugs). Instead, they were offered a
free copy of the software, after its eventual release. Most did it for
the thrill of being the first on their block to be able to run
new, even if it meant taking the risk that the beta software might be
enough to cause their computer to crash and burn. And even though
companies required testers to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA)
to reveal nothing about the product, there was rarely any difficulty
volunteers. (In fact, five months before the release of Windows 95,
was able to get over 200,000 people to pay $32 each for the privilege
receiving a pre-release version of the software).
But times have changed. Beta copies of software seem
to be everywhere.
No, not just the pirated copies that always circulated in the dark
of Internet and BBS culture, but official betas. Go to almost any
developer's Web site, for example, and if you're patient, you can
multi-megabyte 'beta' versions of the upcoming commercial releases.
winter, you could get pre-release versions of Microsoft Publisher and
97 at Microsoft's site, or Claris Home Page at Claris's. Running buggy
pre-release versions of Netscape Navigator months before the official
has become a tradition with many Webheads. Off the Web, Microsoft
thousands of CDs with beta copies of Office 97 to anyone who attended
of their free seminars that crossed North America last Fall.
At least when you download something labeled as a
beta, you probably
realize that along with the free software, you're getting free bugs-a
that isn't yet ready for commercial release to the paying public.
But somewhere along the way, it almost seems like
we've all become beta-testers,
even if we buy the shrink-wrapped product off a store shelf.
Take Corel Draw, for example. Eager buyers of Corel
Draw 4.0 a few years
ago found themselves faced with a continual series of bug fixes-release
4.0a, 4.0b, and 4.0c... ending only with the release, the next spring
version 5.0, and the promise of the cycle starting again.
But I don't mean to pinpoint Corel, particularly. Spin
the wheel, and
pick almost any software producer.
Microsoft's Windows NT is touted as a solid operating
at companies who can't afford to lose data to buggy software. But
Pack (i.e. bug fix) 1 on its new version 4.0 was posted on Microsoft's
Web page only days following the product's release. And that was
by the 15 meg big Service Pack 2. And while SP2 fixed about 100 bugs,
created bugs of its own-now known as the 'Blue Screen of Death', when,
for example, users tried to format a floppy while scanning for viruses.
So now, Microsoft's Web site includes a series of bug fixes for the SP2
bug fix. Some users have complained about Microsoft's new Office 97 as
well, suggesting that it too was rushed to market before it was ready.
Again, I don't mean to suggest that either Microsoft
or Corel are any
worse (or any better, for that matter) than their competitors. In any
there's always friction between the marketing types and the
the engineers want to keep working on the product-speed it up, add
find still more bugs. The marketers, however, need a firm release date
so they can place the ads, and make arrangements to get the boxes into
In fact, maybe our expectations for bug-free software
are simply unrealistic.
You may not realize it, but the government, for
example, sets minimum
acceptable standards for the number of fly wings (and other fly-related
substances) per ton of flour. They realize that in a less than perfect
universe, it's impossible to demand no fly wings at all. If we have to
put up with bugs in flour, we may need to accept software bugs, too, as
just a fact of life.
What do you think? Are you paying to buy software
that's not quite ready
for prime time? Let me know.