Machine Design

Why aren't software houses pilloried for bad products?

Computer people are a strange breed. Everyone assumes they have highly technical, steel-trap minds. But I wonder.

Machine Design, Editorial Comment
August 3, 2000

Consider this. Our corporate computer department will "refresh" laptop batteries if they begin exhibiting short life from the memory effect afflicting nickel-cadmium power sources. "Exactly how do you refresh a battery?" I asked one of our tech-support superstars. "You put it in this device here, and it becomes refreshed," he explained. "Yes, but that makes it sound as though the tooth fairy has something to do with it. What physical mechanism refreshes a dry-cell battery?" I persisted.

"It just gets refreshed," he responded. After more verbal sparring, it was obvious he didn't know and didn't care. If someone told him batteries were refreshed by magic, he would be satisfied with the explanation.

About the same time this happened, my cohorts and I noticed that our computer clocks seemed to drift a lot. At first we thought we had a batch of bad microprocessors. Then we learned that our clocks are reset at the end of the corporate backup every night. The backup person punches in the time when he is finished. Because he is simultaneously setting clocks on hundreds of computers, I figured he must use an authoritative standard, perhaps from the Bureau of Standards or the Naval Observatory. Certainly he must be getting Universal Coordinated Time from some source or another. Dream on. It turns out he punches in whatever he reads from the Timex on his wrist.

So much for the mental acumen of people commonly referred to in the popular press as "techies." Now let's talk about another techie group -- the people who write software. Being a magazine editor, I don't use technical software. I only know what people tell me. And they tell me that CAD programs give users the same miseries and crash-prone qualities endured by those of us using ordinary consumer software.

When managers in charge of software are asked how much time they spend trying to wring bugs out of released products, they invariably reply that very little effort is expended on this endeavor. Instead, most of their resources go toward adding new features to the next release. They say that new features are what people buy, while almost nobody buys a new release because it is more bug-free than what they already have. Even if that is true, don't software houses feel a moral imperative to recall a bad product?

With my PC at home, the "Help" feature in Microsoft Word is almost totally useless. Of the numerous problems I've had, not a single one has been solved by going to the Help menu. And because no manual comes with Word, I've spent close to $200 on third-party publications so I can negotiate my way through Word and Windows. When I get stuck, I call the Microsoft help line, but that costs me $35 a pop, thank you very much.

Why are software developers so unconcerned about their responsibility to people who buy their products? Maybe it is because managers insist on meeting delivery dates even when the product isn't finished.

There was a time when the American automobile industry was castigated for producing cars with poor quality. But the worst-built cars are sterling examples of workmanship compared to the bugs and flaws that afflict software. If airplanes crashed as often as computers do, most of us would be dead. -- Ronald Khol, Editor

-- Ronald Khol, Editor

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