Author says we have a right to expect well-made software

Originally published in: Business in Vancouver, Issue #513, July 24, 2001 The high-tech office column


Author says we have a right to expect well-made software

Can you honestly say you're happy with the software you're using? Despite the promises of software companies, and often glowing reviews from the media, most of us would admit to sometimes feeling software has not made our work any easier.

In his 2000 book The Software Conspiracy (McGraw Hill), long-time technology writer Mark Minasi goes further. Minasi suggests that we should stop making excuses for computer problems. Rather than cutely referring to software "bugs," he would prefer we use the term "defects," and says we put up with design defects in software that we wouldn't tolerate in toasters -- let alone something more important, like an automobile.

He points out that in 1996, North American employees spent more than 65-million hours on hold waiting for software tech support. That doesn't count the time lost or economic cost of having to re-enter all your data after the software crashes.

While defects in word processors have never killed anyone, buggy software in the Patriot missile guidance system led to the death of 28 U.S. military personnel in the Gulf War. Defective software in the Therac-25 X-ray machine killed several patients and General Motors was forced to pay US$7.5 million in punitive damages after known bugs in the fuel injection software for its Chevrolet 2500 pickup led to the death of seven-year-old Bart Johnson.

While the industry claims that it's impossible to produce bug-free software, Minasi points out that "'Can't be perfect' is different from 'No quality control is necessary.'" Software designed for large mainframe systems is designed to a much higher standard than the shrink-wrapped products aimed at home and office personal computers. Software for NASA spacecraft is designed with multiple modules checking one another's results. This redundancy minimizes errors.

Carnegie Mellon University has been promoting its Capability Maturity Model (CMM) for producing higher-quality software since 1987, which it claims results in dramatic reductions in software defect rates.

The software industry is a profitable one. And the US$20 billion it pumps into the U.S. economy every year just about balances what Americans spend to buy foreign cars.

Software vendors, however, claim that customers are more interested in features than in bugs and that taking the time and effort necessary to improve quality would boost prices while slowing down the software development cycle. They imply that if a vendor took the time to produce a higher-quality product, the competition would be able to beat them to market with cheaper, more feature-laden products.

Minasi argues that software consumers haven't been given a choice; rather than being offered free bug-fixes for their existing software, vendors prefer to have customers pay to upgrade to a new version, with new features and a new set of bugs.

In the 1970s North American buyers started opting in large numbers for import cars, offering better reliability and gas mileage instead of ever-fancier features. The relatively low rate of upgrade to the latest office suite packages and increasing interest in robust operating systems such as Linux suggest that the software industry may be seeing the beginnings of a similar consumer revolt.

Minasi doesn't expect things to change overnight, however. In the meantime, he suggests fed-up software consumers should let vendors know how they feel and offers steps for defense against defective software that is all too likely to crash, taking down a day's work with it.

As an aside: A few weeks ago, we noted that Microsoft was giving corporate customers until the end of October for low-cost upgrades to its Office XP suite. The deadline has now been extended by six months, giving business users until February 28, 2002, to sign onto the company's new Software Assurance plan.


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