The crash of Bill Gates' Windows 98 demo at Spring COMDEX in April briefly peeled back the duct tape haphazardly covering the computer industry's Dirty Little Secret. No matter how much of a big business software has become, how many hundreds of thousands of Barbie Fashion Designer programs may sell, or the number of press articles that appear touting software as a commodity on the order of cat food, the truth is that even the worst off-the-shelf cat food is unlikely to cause your cat to suddenly stop working.
Software bugs don't seem to cause as much of an outcry as they used to, perhaps because we view them as part of the accepted cost of being digital. Yet the crash of Windows 98 was a very public demonstration that, mainstream dreams notwithstanding, packaged software is not a mature class of product.
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Take the huge success of BugNet (www.bugnet.com), the Sumas, Washingtonbased collector of bugs in off-the-shelf computer software. In January, BugNet passed a major milestone—it published more than 500 fixes for bugs in one month, the most since its creation in November 1994. In all, founder Bruce Brown estimates it has catalogued more than 10,000 bugs (some a single problem affecting many applications) in popular packaged software.
The importance of BugNet's work recently led computer content site ZDNet (www.zdnet.com) to license the BugNet database. BugNet boasts that it reaches nearly 20 million people each month, with subscribers such as AT&T, Boeing, and the CIA—to say nothing of investors interested in, or firms competing with, companies damned by Brown's database.
Some bugs are merely annoying, such as Microsoft printing a truncated 10- (instead of 11-) digit CD "key" on a batch of copies of Microsoft Publisher 98 Deluxe, forcing buyers to call Microsoft to get the right sequence of numbers so they can install the software. Others are downright dangerous. Last month, BugNet identified a Microsoft FrontPage 98 bug that can wipe an inexperienced user's hard drive of all of its contents—including the operating system.
There's little doubt the prevalence of bugs is greater than it was five years ago. As computers are adopted by the mass market, there are many more hardware and software combinations that can be thrown at a given application — configurations software may not have been tested with when it was being created. Programs, too, have grown far more complex in order to take advantage of graphical user interfaces like Windows, data sharing among applications, and Internet features.
The Internet has had a second impact when combined with competitive pressures: Software is being sold before its time. It used to be just an industry joke that software companies rushed programs out the door so they could make quarterly sales goals, turning buyers into unwitting beta testers. Now, as buyers expect software development to march to Internet time, this practice is out in the open. Not only do a growing number of companies allow anyone to download pre-release software, Microsoft even charged $30 a pop for the privilege of trying a Windows 98 beta. When it comes to avoiding software conflicts, beta is not necessarily betta.
Programmers working away in their digital kitchens seem reluctant to acknowledge the digital roaches thriving on their crumbs. But be careful should you ever turn over your PC—in all likelihood you'll find the soft, off-white underbelly crawling with bugs.
Signs of almost life
In what may be the single most backhanded compliment beleaguered Apple Computer has ever received, an InfoWorld column applauds the discovery of the new "Autostart-9805" virus that uses an opening in QuickTime to overwrite data. Turns out it's the first Mac-only virus in nearly three years. The accolade logic? "If nobody cares enough about a platform to hack it," Loose Cables columnist Chip Brookshaw reasons, "things are grim indeed."
The battle against unsolicited bulk e-mail has finally received some congressional support: The US Senate approved a rider to telephone anti-slamming bill SB 1618 (www.senate.gov/~murkowski/commercial
email/) that echoes much of what a new anti-spam Washington state law does.
Unlike the state law—which goes into effect next week—the Senate provision has drawn the ire of ardent anti-spammers for not going far enough. The month-old Forum for Responsible and Ethical E-mail (www.ybecker.net) says the amendment, still to be approved by the House, provides little protection: Affected Internet service providers can't sue spammers and it doesn't forbid the "hijacking" of others' mail servers, as does the state law. Notes one critic, "The only thing better for spammers than this bill would have to be personal protection from God."
Full of shirt
MCI exec and longtime Internet pioneer Vint Cerf apparently is enamored of the idea of giving just about any electronics device, from cameras to computers, an Internet Protocol address so it can be hooked to the Net. Trade publication Interactive Week alleges Cerf has been known to wear a T-shirt proclaiming "IP on Everything." What does it take for him to wear it? Depends.
Frank Catalano, a Seattle-area analyst for computer industry companies and the co-author of Marketing Online for Dummies, can be reached at email@example.com.
Related Links and information:
Senator Murkowski's junk e-mail provision
The Forum for Responsible & Ethical E-mail