The Geek Gap: Why Do Companies Release Software with Bugs?
By Bill Pfleging and Minda Zetlin
As many of you can probably relate to, I’m (Bill) more often than not the one friends and family come to with tech questions (Minda gets all their business questions). Usually, I can answer them. But here’s one I can’t really figure out, and perhaps you could help.
After a frustrating session upgrading to – or trying, anyway – Internet Explorer 7, a friend called me and asked: “Why is it that almost every time Microsoft releases some bit of software, it generally causes more harm than good, and then takes considerable patching to set things right? Don’t the geeks at Microsoft have to check these things out first? Or is it a business decision?”
Good question, or rather two questions. Why is it so consistently buggy on first release? And is it because their geeks are sloppy, or do the suits force releases before they’re ready? Or is it some other, unknown reason?
We all know it would be next to impossible to test for every circumstance software will be subjected to, but to my thinking that’s not enough of an explanation. All software is released with some bugs, but rarely to the extent of the problems MS software comes with. As the old joke goes, if GM ran its automobile business the way Microsoft makes software, the highways would be filled with cars that shut down unexpectedly and need to be constantly retooled, refitted, and restarted.
Take, for instance, the continuing brouhaha over Windows Vista, one of the least successful software releases in MS history—or any other history. Recently, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency “strongly” recommended that schools not deploy Microsoft’s latest operating system within the next 12 months.
Some U.S. government agencies seem to be taking a dim view of Vista as well. InformationWeek recently reported that the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has banned Vista from its internal networks. The Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration have taken it a step further, not only banning Vista, but Microsoft Office 2007 and Internet Explorer 7, too.
What’s going on here? Did Microsoft completely lose sight of its customers and their needs? Back in 2004, when Vista went by its pre-release codename “Longhorn,” Jim Allchin, chief of the Microsoft Windows wrote as much in a memo to Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. “I am not sure how the company lost sight of what matters to our customers (both business and home) the most, but in my view we lost our way,” he wrote, adding that “random features” don’t add up to great products, and concluding: “I would buy a Mac today if I was not working at Microsoft.”
OK, maybe Microsoft really did lose its way. But there’s another nagging possibility—at least so it seems to me. Some of you may be old enough to remember the introduction of “New Coke” back in 1985. In an effort to go after Pepsi drinkers, Coca-Cola introduced a sweeter reformulation of Coke. People hated it. “Pepsi and Coke have been going at it eyeball-to-eyeball. And in my view the other guy just blinked,” crowed Pepsi CEO Roger Enrico.
With 23 years’ hindsight, though, introducing New Coke might have been a brilliant move. It allowed the company to bring back its pre-New Coke version to widespread delight, calling it “Coke Classic” which probably inspired some non-Coke drinkers to give it a try and see what the fuss was about. Today, Coke’s market share is well ahead of Pepsi’s and it’s grabbing up more and more supermarket and convenience-store shelf space with an ever-growing array of flavors. (Coca-Cola BlaK, with “coffee essence,” anyone?) What looked like a gaffe in fact underscored how many people were committed to the original product, and how much they cared about it.
It strikes me that Microsoft could work the same way. Internet Explorer 8 is already being promoted, even as users are trying to recover from glitches in IE7. Bill Gates has already indicated they may be releasing its next operating system sooner than previously planned. Windows 7 is reported to be a more functional, simplified desktop, with a smaller footprint than Vista. Meanwhile, companies that offer their services to uninstall Vista and replace it with Windows XP are getting more customers than they can handle—perhaps the first time in software history willing buyers have lined up for a downgrade.
Businesses wonder how they will cope when MS stops supporting XP. Just like the old Coke drinkers of yesteryear, users of Microsoft’s earlier operating systems didn’t know how much they loved them till they were stuck with something completely different, and maybe MS’s Steve Balmer was paying attention.
Maybe I’m too cynical, too paranoid, too much of a conspiracy theorist, or too much of a stereotypical geek mistrusting the suits. But I’m wondering if that might have been what the corporate leaders at Microsoft intended, all along.