The Decline of Software Quality and the Third Reich

By Richard Morochove

First published December 5, 1996

Eventually, it all seems to end up with the Nazis. If you make a habit of monitoring messages on Usenet newsgroups, you’ll eventually see an overheated exchange of opinions known as a “flame war”. You know the flaming has reached the boiling point the first time one protagonist compares another to a Nazi. I’ve seen it happen time and time again.

What’s the connection between the National Socialism party and the declining quality of computer software? Lately, both Corel and Microsoft have been accused of inadvertently promoting Nazism. While the embarrassment of these companies gets the attention, it’s not the important point. Software quality control, or the lack of it, is the real issue.

Ottawa-based Corel Corp. is placing stickers on boxes of CorelDraw sold in Germany, warning the software includes three clip art images of Hitler and a swastika among the 75,000 images included in the software library. Glorification of images associated with Nazism is prohibited under German law. Recently, a district attorney in Munich ordered copies of the program pulled off store shelves in that city.

Corel won a court challenge, but is reviewing the contents of its program and may remove these and other offensive images in the next version of the software.

Another kerfuffle involves an icon on the Microsoft web site at http://www.microsoft.com/windows/games/. Some believe the center of a spinning icon, midway in its rotation, resembles a swastika.

This isn’t the first time Microsoft has been accused of political insensitivity. Another gaffe had Spain, Mexico and other Latin American countries in an uproar last summer.

The Spanish-language version of Microsoft Word featured a thesaurus recommending insulting synonyms for members of minorities. For a black person, Word’s thesaurus suggested Spanish words for “cannibal” and “barbarian”. According to Microsoft Word, Indians were equivalent to savages. When writing about lesbians, Word said you can substitute the words “perverse” or “vicious”.

It seems Microsoft purchased outdated thesaurus software and included it in Word without doing a proper quality control check.

Software releases today are guided more often by the calendar than by the readiness of new features. As the software market matures, fewer and fewer programs are being sold to new users. Many of the programs sold to new users come pre-installed on new computers. Bundled software brings in surprisingly little to the software company. There are rumors that Corel is charging hardware makers as little as $10 for the right to pre-load WordPerfect Suite on new computers.

The real money in software comes from developing a new version every year and convincing existing users they need to upgrade to fix problems or receive flashy new features that are little used. Software developers try to get the user hooked, then extract money for fixes, tactics not dissimilar to a drug dealer.

You’re probably familiar with the Five Stages of Upgrading Software.

Anticipation: You order the upgrade, thinking of all the improvements it will deliver.

Denial: You install the upgrade and discover a software bug or other problem. Disbelieving, you think the problem must lie in something you’re doing and not the program.

Shock: You find out other users experience similar problems.

Anger: You’re enraged at the software developer for selling you buggy software.

Acceptance: You grudgingly accept the program, problems and all, reasoning that all software developers seem to play this game and bugs are inevitable.

Does buggy software harm the developer? Not that I can see. Consider the case of Intuit, maker of the leading personal finance software Quicken. Glance at the Usenet newsgroup comp.os.ms-windows.apps.financial to get a sample of difficulties users have with recently released Quicken 97. Yet, Quicken dominates its software category and has pretty well eliminated the competition, with the notable exception of Microsoft Money 97.

Are software bugs inevitable? I think the current economics of the software business are to blame. Software makers must hype their new releases to receive an annual stream of revenues. As long as they are rewarded by shipping software and not by user satisfaction, they will find some excuse to ship a new version, whether it’s ready or not.

I think it’s time for computer users to become more critical of what we’re offered in software upgrades. If you don’t need the new features, don’t order the upgrade. If you try the upgrade and aren’t satisfied with it, demand your money back.

The quality of software upgrades will only improve if we let developers know that buggy software costs us dearly in wasted time and effort. Let’s send them a message that upgrades must deliver improvements, not exchange one set of problems for another. CW