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 updated products, looked for volunteers to help them test pre-release versions of the software. 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 offered rewards 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 something new, even if it meant taking the risk that the beta software might be buggy enough to cause their computer to crash and burn. And even though software companies required testers to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) swearing to reveal nothing about the product, there was rarely any difficulty getting volunteers. (In fact, five months before the release of Windows 95, Microsoft was able to get over 200,000 people to pay $32 each for the privilege of 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 corners of Internet and BBS culture, but official betas. Go to almost any software developer's Web site, for example, and if you're patient, you can download multi-megabyte 'beta' versions of the upcoming commercial releases. This winter, you could get pre-release versions of Microsoft Publisher and FrontPage 97 at Microsoft's site, or Claris Home Page at Claris's. Running buggy pre-release versions of Netscape Navigator months before the official release has become a tradition with many Webheads. Off the Web, Microsoft distributed thousands of CDs with beta copies of Office 97 to anyone who attended one 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 product 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 of 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 system, aimed at companies who can't afford to lose data to buggy software. But Service 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 followed by the 15 meg big Service Pack 2. And while SP2 fixed about 100 bugs, it 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 company, there's always friction between the marketing types and the engineers... the engineers want to keep working on the product-speed it up, add features, 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 the stores.

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.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan