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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.

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11 Comments

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  1. Vijay Vijayasankar
    Very interesting topic.
    I get the impression that the time spent from ramp to release is shrinking at SAP too. A good example is CRM2007, which took very little time before they announced that it was in GA.

    I am very keen to understand how SAP takes these decisions – like what KPIs tell them it s stable enough for GA.

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    1. Bill Pfleging and Minda Zetlin Post author
      Yes, I’d like to know what the process is for any company to decide when a piece of code is “ready for prime time” – or not, as the case may be. I wonder if others involved with SAP software are also feeling the time from ramp to release is shrinking, and why that is.
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  2. Minda Zetlin
    Thanks for your comment, Vijay!

    Neither of us works at SAP, so we could not comment on their development cycle. (Perhaps one of our many friends at SAP could provide a more informed comment about software releases?)

    But you raise an interesting general question: How does a software company determine when a product is ready for prime time? What KPIs *should* they use?

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  3. Mike Bennett
    When my family has asked me what I thought about Windows Vista I said:  “Windows XP Professional is finally more affordable.”

    Vista ~ Me 2008

    Just my opinion, I could be wrong…

    Mike Bennett
    Magnolia Consulting

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    1. Bill Pfleging and Minda Zetlin Post author
      Mike, I feel the same way. I’ve heard lots of folks equate Vista with Windows Me, calling it Me2. I’ve seen more people start to take Linux a bit more seriously too since Vista, with companies starting to replace Windows with Linux desktop software on some of their workers systems. And Apple is seeing a surge in sales as well.
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  4. Gilberto Delgado Rivera
    I don’t know that any Company would knowingly put out a product, or collection of products, that might push their customers over the line into the arms of their competitors. I guess a Company the size of MS could risk it but I doubt it. IMHO, the amount of effort and money that went into developing these products is too high for it to have been a sneaky ploy. If I had to venture a guess, I would say it has something to do with what MS knows its customers will let them get away with. It would be interesting to find out how many people actually upgraded to Vista (not including the ones who bought new systems with it already loaded) versus how many knew to wait and see how it goes. In the end, putting out buggy software can only eat away at the customer base. MS is so gigantic that it takes time but eventually customers will catch on.
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    1. Bill Pfleging and Minda Zetlin Post author
      Yes, you wouldn’t think any company would knowingly put out software that’s inferior or worse, but as I pointed out, it certainly worked for Coca-Cola, and Coke is one huge behemoth of a company. So who knows? Since we don’t have Steve Balmer coming over for a weekly poker night, we can’t ask. But I might point out that M$ has been putting out buggy software for more than a decade, and they are still the 800lb. gorilla, so it hasn’t hurt them yet.
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  5. Eric Cartman
    It is probably one of the easiest things in the world of IT, to have bad opinion about M$ 🙂 Anyway I believe, that M$ was always rather a marketing firm, than a software developer company 🙂

    ec

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    1. Bill Pfleging and Minda Zetlin Post author
      Yes, I agree, it’s very easy to not like MicroShaft, as a friend of mine calls them. And yes, I think they put far more effort and manpower into their marketing then they do the technology itself.
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  6. Venkata Ramisetti
    This is very nice article. The problem is not only with MS. Many top software makers are releasing their products with similar issues…Since OS is a critical for any computer, they must be very careful when releasing new products/versions. But I have been using Vista OS since one year without any issues and also I have not installed any anti-virus software. Only thing I hate about Vista is it takes more memory. XP takes less than half memory that Vista takes…
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    1. Bill Pfleging and Minda Zetlin Post author
      Yes, you’re right, all major software makers need to be careful when releasing updates and new versions. You make an interesting point, that Vista takes huge amounts of RAM as well as computing power do function. Why? Most of the Vista “innovations” are direct rip-offs from Linux and Apple OS X, or close approximations of them, and while OS X is somewhat of a memory hog, it’s nothing like Vista. Some Linux distributions can use all the same graphic eye-candy and run faster on less than half the memory Vista needs, not to mention it’s ability to run on slower CPUs.
      So why does Vista need such an enormous amount of computing power?
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