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Greg Black

gjb at gbch dot net
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Fri, 20 Oct 2006

Software quality

It’s hard to find examples where the two words in my title belong together. People of all kinds–users of software, software developers, and those who teach the next generation of developers–have been pontificating about both the problems with software and various approaches that might help to solve the problems for decades. But, as a general rule with almost no exceptions, software still sucks. And it’s getting worse, not better.

Anybody who happens to read this already knows that software is a problem since they have to be using quite a bit of software just to be reading a blog–and it’s my contention that just using software is enough to drive you to drink.

I’m a software developer, so I am fully aware of the difficulty of creating high quality software. It is indeed difficult to produce software with no bugs and, for most software, it’s probably impractical–or at least not worth the cost. But that’s not to say that the quantity of bugs in the stuff we all have to deal with every day is justifiable.

Here are a couple of examples from some of my appliances. I have a DVR. It has a 60G hard disk and a DVD writer. And it doesn’t have to do much. So why does it take 30 seconds to boot up? Why does it have to boot up after making a recording? Why can’t I set it to record something that starts less than five minutes after the previous item? Why can’t it sort titles alphabetically using the same rules as anybody else?

To elaborate on the last point, as it’s a classic example, consider the following list of titles:

  • Apple
  • Apple Tree
  • Azimuth

That’s sorted in the way that any sane person would expect. Getting software to sort it that way is child’s play. The Unix sort program will sort it that way by default. So what does my DVR do? Behold:

  • Apple
  • Azimuth
  • Apple Tree

I’ve had enough time to study its behaviour now, so I can choose titles for things that it can sort the way I want–but it’s completely crazy that I should ever have been driven to think about this. I don’t want to belabour the point about this one appliance too much, so I’ll limit myself to one other bizarre fault. It has, as I mentioned earlier, a 60G disk. So it can store quite a number of off-air programs for viewing at more convenient times. Well, it could do that if it didn’t have a limit of 7 recording slots. That’s right–seven. The first VCR I ever owned, more than 20 years ago, could be programmed for more than seven recordings.

I’m sorry, I lied. I’m going to mention one more thing about this device–because it’s faintly possible that this is a deficiency in the hardware rather than the software (not that I believe that for a minute). The advertising material and the manual for my DVR claim that it can copy between media at accelerated speed. That seems to be a reasonable capability, given what we know about other such equipment, so I expected it to work. But it doesn’t. Copy an hour of video from the hard disk to a DVD and it takes exactly one hour. Copy an hour of video from a DVD to the hard disk and that also takes exactly one hour.

And, for another instance that might be hardware but probably isn’t, consider the fact that it makes DVDs that quite likely can’t be read by at least a few of the 8 other DVD readers in the house. Sometimes, to show just how clever it is, it can make a DVD that it can’t read itself. And when that happens, the only way to get control of it again is to remove the power and physically remove the offending disk.

That device has a flotilla of other hideous bugs that make it a nightmare. My wife just leaves it to me to drive it. She is pretty smart.

Now, let’s turn to my phone. No, let’s not. At least, not beyond mentioning that it’s slow and as buggy as hell too. Having once worked as a consultant for one of the mobile phone manufacturers–where my task was to teach their programmers C and to help them with some of the interesting bits of their software–I’m not surprised to see that this phone has software that I wouldn’t spit on.

The trouble is that software is ubiquitous in our world. Even if you never touch a thing called a computer, you can’t escape it. So you’d imagine that we–the software creators of the world–would have figured out some of the basics of making software by now. But we simply haven’t come close. And nothing I see in our tertiary institutions makes me think that’s about to change all of a sudden.

One of the good things about the world of software is Free Software. (For anybody who doesn’t recognise why those two words were capitalised, have a look at this definition for some insight.) Sadly, the Free Software people are at least as bad as the rest of the software community when it comes to quality. The Free Software crowd have a bunch of silly slogans written by would-be philosophers without much insight such as the famous “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”, usually attributed to one of the worst poseurs in the community.

The problem is that bad software is much easier to get done than good software. Of course, if you consider the subsequent investment of time by the software authors while they try to address the worst bugs, then the apparent speed of the favoured method seems less of a sure thing. And, heaven forbid, if we considered the time lost by the unfortunate users of this software, then the equation becomes ridiculous. Time spent on whatever process we can find that results in fewer bugs going into the product will be amply rewarded. And, as many people are now showing, it is almost certain that taking the time to get it right in the first place will be quicker than rushing bug-infested rubbish out the door–certainly once the developers have had time to become established in this new pattern of work.

Just as I avoided listing brand names of my appliances above, I’m not going to single out individual pieces of software for criticism here. But it’s pretty safe to say that any high-profile piece of software is almost certainly riddled with thousands of maddening bugs. And the bigger the software, the worse it will be, for reasons that will be obvious.

As a final comment on the sad state of things, I’m going to look at the state of programming languages–again without naming names. I’m not talking about the suitability of our languages for developing great software, although that is indeed an important matter. I’m just talking about the woeful state of the software in the interpreters and compilers themselves. I recently acquired a 64-bit computer, not so much because I needed the extra capabilities it had, but to use as a platform for me to use to weed out any little buglets in my own code that might be exposed by a 64-bit machine. As it happens, I have not found any. But I have been amazed at the number of languages that I wanted to use in my testing that are simply not able to run on a 64-bit platform, despite the fact that 64-bit systems have been around for years. And not to mention all the other applications that are not yet available for my 64-bit platform. This is really sad.

And it’s so bad that, in the next few weeks when my operating system comes out with its next release, I’m going to install the 32-bit version on my workstation so that I’ll be able to use all the stuff I want to use.

I’ve been working all my life at continuing to improve the way I do things. I will keep doing that. I’m happy to talk with people about ways of improving software. And I really think it’s way past time for the software development community to get off its collective butt and to start looking hard at injecting quality into software.