Who among us hasn't been the victim
of defective software? You type a
report in your word processor, compose a bit of e-mail, or try to buy something
over the Web in your favorite Web browser, and all of a sudden something goes
wrong. The program stops
responding, or just disappears from the screen altogether, or maybe the whole
system ignores your keystrokes and mouse clicks, forcing you to shut down the
whole computer. Whatever caused it,
the result is the same you lost your ideas, your time, and squandered some
creativity, perhaps never to get it back again.
Admittedly, sometimes the cause of
the trouble is us ourselves we've all accidentally quit a program without
saving but more often it's due to a defect in the software itself.
Like everything else, software has defects (the software industry has
trained us to call them by the more innocuous "bug"), but the number
of defects in software as compared to that found in other off-the-shelf consumer
products is stunning. It's not
unusual for a piece of software to have hundreds or thousands
of defects. Can you imagine buying
a car, a toaster, a newspaper or even a cheeseburger with that many defects?
But wait, it gets worse.
Those aren't defects that just crop up as people start using that
software. No, it's a fact that on
average software vendors know about 90 percent of the bugs in that software before
they even release it to the public.
Sadly, software companies are
perfectly capable of writing low-defect software. But they dont because they believe that you, the consumer, don't really care about software reliability.
They believe that the only thing that motivates you to buy new software
is features bells and whistles by the truckload.
Don't believe it? Listen to Bill Gates in a quote from The
"There are no
significant bugs in our released software that any significant
number of users want fixed... The reason we come up with new
versions is not to fix bugs. It's absolutely not. It's the stupidest
reason to buy a new version I ever heard... And so, in no sense, is
stability a reason to move to a new version. It's never a
But it's not just Bill; virtually every
software executive feels this way. They think that equipping the latest version of your word processor with
rotating 3-D bullet points in color and stereo sound is the thing that will
convince you to buy the newest software, no matter how often that software
unexpectedly dies, taking your work with it.
They spend their time on doodads, rather than doing it right.
And the effects of this reach far
beyond your computer. The U.S. recently
lost $130 million on the Mars Climate Orbiter because some of the program worked
in metric units and some in English units. The probe was supposed to orbit
65 miles above Mars, but instead tried to orbit 65 kilometers (40 miles)
and so met a fiery -- and unnecessary -- death. American
software firms currently make most of the world's software and as a result the
software business contributes more to our international trade balance than any
other industry. But once that was
true of the American automotive industry as well, and the U.S. lost that lead to
other countries by shipping low-quality goods.
This could happen to software as well, and sooner than we expect.