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Quality Control In Computer Companies 249

Ant sent us a Salon feature that talks about the (lack of) quality control in computer manufacturing, and then talks about it being "the American way of techno-capitalism". I've not had nearly the problems that people in this article allege, but I can sympathize.
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Quality Control In Computer Companies

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 06, 2000 @10:58AM (#576954)
    1. Programmer produces code he believes is bug-free.
    2. Product is tested. 20 bugs are found.
    3. Programmer fixes 10 of the bugs and explains to the testing department that the other 10 aren't really bugs.
    4. Testing department finds that five of the fixes didn't work and discovers 15 new bugs.
    5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 three times.
    6. Due to marketing pressure and an extremely premature product announcement based on overly-optimistic programming schedule, the product is released.
    7. Users find 137 new bugs.
    8. Original programmer, having cashed his royalty check, is nowhere to be found.
    9. Newly-assembled programming team fixes almost all of the 137 bugs, but introduce 456 new ones.
    10. Original programmer sends underpaid testing department a postcard from Fiji. Entire testing department quits.
    11. Company is bought in a hostile takeover by competitor using profits from their latest release, which had 783 bugs.
    12. New CEO is brought in by board of directors. He hires a programmer to redo program from scratch.
    13. Programmer produces code he believes is bug-free...
  • I sold computer systems at a major retail outlet for nine months. I can't say which company but lets just say my store was store #297 (to give you an idea of how large this retail chain is). About a month after I started they began checking machines before finally giving them to a customer (a kind of last step in quality assurance). You know what's funny? Over 30% of the machines we sold would not boot up out of the box. These weren't no name junk, machines like HP, Compaq, Emachine and ofcource Packard Bell (which later merged their product line with NEC). These machine's died because of component failures. The most common were: Power Supply and Hard Drive failures. Simply put the manufacturers DO NOT CARE. They buy the cheapest Korean components, slap it together and hope the stores sell expensive service plans on the products. From my experiences over 60% of the machines we sold came back for repair within two years. And you know what? This makes perfect business sense. It's simple, Joe User doesn't have a clue. It goes like this: You buy the machine and no service plan, it fails in two years and you have to go out and buy a new machine (Manufacturers win). You buy the machine and an expensive ($200+) service plan, it fails in two years and you take it the store for repairs (Store still wins since parts cost them a small amount and at 11$ an hour technicians are dirt cheap). It's the perfect "You scratch my back I'll scratch your back" system. Maybe no one will believe this and I'll loose some Karma but after what I saw I build all my machines myself and maybe you guys should too.
  • it's all about cutting corners to trim the overhead right? who cares if you company's product doesn't live up to it's expectations or there are known security issues... we live in a society where marketing dominates
    take pokemon for example... 100% marketing genius
    as far as the author's gun analogy.. granted the ak-47 is one of the most abusable guns around... but you need to pick the right tool for the job.. if you want decent power, cheap costs and high reliability in varied enviornments then you would pick soemthing like the ak47
    higher cost, small design, equal durability and more common ammunition.. try the uzi
    the m16 might be jam prone but it is far more accurate at long range than the ak
    me personally i like the hk-mp5 for it's high reliability and versitle configurations....
    (not that i like guns mind you)
  • Funny, I never encountered any problems with it, contray to some other companies I won't mention by name as they're the ones signing my paycheck:-)
  • I don't know about everyone else, but I wasn't that surprised. The y2k bug was made out to be far worse than it actually is/was.

    Of all the software out there, not very much relies on the date being correct such that it would be a critical failure point. The biggest risk I can think of would have been banking, and even that's not as horrible as people made it out to be. All those interest calculations are done and finalized with each itiration. Any miscalculations of funds would have begun on january 1st. They would not have been applied retroactively; your account wouldn't vanish because the system suddenly thought you hadn't opened it yet. It's more likely the software would crash or otherwise halt on error because the data is invalid (any bank using software that can't recognize the error conditions of negative interest/deposits, positive withdrawls, etc would have deserved what they got, IMHO).

    A full-blown case of the y2k bug would have been an extreme annoyance at worst. Hardly a panic-worthy disaster.
    Where can the word be found, where can the word resound? Not here, there is not enough silence.
  • The problems described here are a result of a Capitalist economy. In a Communist economy, central planning deploys resources to fulfill the needs of the people. If quality is lacking somewhere it is not 'hidden' but solved. If solutions are necessary they are implemented based on 'Need vs Desire' not the pocket book of a corporatist whore. They only produce what is needed, there are no 'artificial cycles' in the economy because production is measured to meet need.

    The goal of a Communist economy is to produce quality, lasting articles of /youritemhere/. Not profit - not marketing - not advertising. If a deficiency is seen in an industry greater resources are spent by central planning to meet those needs ie:

    Problem: PeeCees are arriving at peoples homes with defects, caused by lack of control during assembly.
    Solution: Improve control systems during assembly & implement quality checks offline.
    Method: Remove engineers from successful widget manufacturing, re-assign. Remove Q.A. people from yadda manufacturing, re-assign.

    Which plan sounds like a better method to satisfy the needs of the people of the planet? What is the purpose of producing 'things'? To satisfy the needs of people -or- has the goal strangely become to 'expand the economy' and make profit? We are increadibly productive workers as a result of (technology) productivity improvements - why aren't people benefiting? Isnt the problems described here a natural product of a capitalist system? Competition Increases. Quality Decreases. (Price Decreases - irrelevant).

  • Matrox had a major nightmare with a set of their digital video cards (Matrox Studio) they released some time ago (believe it required NT 3.51 to run, so pretty old).

    They did not appear to care then about releasing beta drivers and crap software onto an unwitting public.

    Of course, I suppose the argument could be made that Matrox learned from that experience...

  • I know this is a troll, but i will bite.

    I'd say your post is much more trollish than the parent. :)

    First, a computer does one thing. It rund programs. They can be audio, video, 2d3d design, internet browsers, etc, but they are all ust programs.

    PCs are built to work in thousands of different configurations -- sound cards, modems, hard drives, programs, can all be interchanged/combined, and the PC is still supposed to work.

    Unless you have a model I've never seen, this is not the case with the refrigerators. You turn them on, and they keep your food cold.

  • Oh yes, definitely. It's not the workers per se, it's not the need for "innovation", it's the process.

    Yes, as someone pointed out, look at Honda. Why is it a best seller? Because even if _slightly_ more expensive, it's damn good and reliable.
    It's not like Honda cars lack innovation, heck they're practically at the front!
    And it's not like you can blame it on the union workers or whatever, because Honda churns out cars from US and Canada, and these are way more reliable and better initial build quality than cars churned out by, say, GM.
  • Yes, there is still nmake in there. Maybe you didn't install all of the command line utilities?

    Personally, I use GNU make from the cygwin package to fire off an nmake session. It's a little hokey, but if you can send the build profile off to nmake, it works well. By itself, nmake is very painful to use.

  • "Finally, perhaps a written test should be required before allowing the purchase of a computer."

    No question! I also believe anyone who wants to drive a car should know how to do at least a brake job (including turning rotors/drums and bleeding the hydraulic system), perform a front end alignment and prove their competence at diagnosing common steering problems, show that they are able to mount and balance a tire, and generally do most maintenance tasks using no source of information other than the documentation supplied with the car when it was purchased new.

    This would lead to much better computer code and more reliable hardware because a majority of people in the IT industry would no longer be able to drive and could concentrate on making their products better and easier to use.

    It would also solve most of the traffic problems in Silicon Valley and, as a side effect, cut the accident rate and car insurance prices there by a huge amount.

    Meanwhile, yeah, let's start a mandatory training program for computer and Internet users so that they can all diagnose their own problems and stop bothering tech support.

    And I'll keep on driving my 1994 (reliable) Jeep Cherokee (since I used to fix cars professionally and have no problem keeping it up), and I'll keep on using my trailing-edge computers (a 500MHz Celeron does all I need), my one-generation-back Linux kernel and one-release-old Mandrake distro, and I will keep doing all my important writing in clunky, inelegant, feature-free NEdit because it may not be as cute as [your favorite word processor here] but has never crashed on me, not once, not ever, while I was typing and saving copy.

    - Robin

  • by Alioth ( 221270 ) <no@spam> on Wednesday December 06, 2000 @02:01PM (#576965) Journal
    Where I work, we have taken on board many of Humphrey's lessons. We have instituted a process, and we look at quality very seriously. And we need to, as well. Importantly, we manage expectations. Our management doesn't tell the customer "Oh yes, we'll have that for you next week" any more.

    Since we started doing this, our defect rate has decreased dramatically. The difference between before having the process and after having it is like night and day. Since we started using a good process, I have seldom worked overtime. Before we had the process, we would be working 60 to 80 hour weeks continuously, but the team as a whole was less productive than it is now.

    I don't feel my "creativity" has been stifled. My creativity is now expressed elsewhere. Design is now heavily peer reviewed. Coding is reduced largely to a mechanical implementation of the design, and that's the way it should be. (And the code is peer reviewed, too).

    To use a horrible business buzzword, it's a "win-win" situation. Our staff turnover is very low. I've been on the project for five years now, and I'm still happy. Had we carried on as we had before instituting the strict process that we have done, I doubt I would have stayed.

  • by levendis ( 67993 ) on Wednesday December 06, 2000 @12:13PM (#576966) Homepage
    We already had a big software disaster - remember Y2K? Arguably one of the largest engineering "projects" in history, and its seems we got through it with nary a scratch. And who is most suprised of all... the engineers themselves. Most of us geeks expected at least a little bit of hell to break loose when the clock struck midnight on January 1st, even though we were the ones who apparently fixed the problem. I'm utterly shocked that things went as smoothly as they did, considering most Y2K repair work was probably horribly hacky. And have we matured much because of it? Nope.....
  • This IMO is a fairly valid point despite the cost differences.

    The cost difference is everything when it comes to quality control. One could hire thousands of dedicated testers to test Minesweeper, if people were paying $10M+ for each copy of it. At current software prices, that's just not possible.

  • BS! I have a Powerbook G3. You still have to be careful what you install on it, cause it flakes out and crashes sometimes.
    What caused me the most grief? Ahem...upgrading from MacOS 8.0 to MacOS 9.0. You'd think _that'd_ be tested thoroughly by Apple, right?

    The point is that nearly all major software companies do _not_ have a good process for generating error free code.

    And partially, that's our (the consumers) fault. Do you go out and buy the latest version of Microsoft Office, even though the only "improvements" are a whole whack of features you never use? Or
    Do you think the general public would buy a new version that was advertised as "no new features, but we made it faster, smaller and cleaned up all the bugs!"
  • I'd also fear that the auto industry is back at the same point! The reason is that many luxury automobiles have or will have 100 - 150 microcontrollers inside them, with networks ranging from a few kilobits (who pops those power locks?) to tens of megabits (multimedia systems, those LCD panels and everything else that keeps kids quiet. Yes, people buy these things.) What comes with lots of microcontrollers? Lots of software.

    The car companies are under more pressure than software companies at this time. Their products can kill a person if they fail. Some cars are going to have steer and brake-by-wire (with no mechanical backup, as you see in many of today's higher-end cars) in a few years. If these systems fail, you're putting the driver, passengers and other people in danger. As a company, you put yourself in a position for many big lawsuits if you get the system (hardware, software, network) wrong. You had better bet that they are going to use a good process to make these things right, because finding out in the field (like you might with unnamed software companys' mass beta-level software distributions).

    What scares me, however, is the interconnection of the different networks. Yes, there is a firewall between my engine's fuel injector, the brake system's network, the multimedia/communications network (*with* integrated cell phones -- cars that phone home when the airbags deploy are already out there). These systems have to be designed to be robust if something breaks, but they may also have to worry about attacks from outside. Good software design methodologies, like the upper levels of the CMM model described (but not named?) in the article, can help you get there. It's not a guarantee, but it definitely makes me more likely to trust that the cars on the road will operate correctly (to some definition of correctly).

  • Wasn't any quality control involved there, it was just a cost calculation, like the Pinto controversy in the 1970s. Think about it this way, any product you own might have been found in testing to be dangerous or deadly, but with such a low probability of occurrence that the product was just pushed out the door. Sometimes paying off a few lawsuits is cheaper than fixing the problem.

    Thanks, cunt!


  • So the only question in my mind is, who will be the next Japan?

    Well, the article makes it pretty clear that India is shaping up to give the US software industry a wake-up call real soon now.

  • Example: Ultima Online, the age of the Beta Testers. This is the longest age: starting from before Catskills was up, and still going...
  • by levendis ( 67993 ) on Wednesday December 06, 2000 @12:17PM (#576973) Homepage
    You're right, but that's not necessarily the problem. Think about Windows 3.1 - its been around for what, 8 years now, so it must be nearly perfect, right? The problem is that the development focus in the tech industry is on the bleeding edge, and stuff thats more than one year or so off the bleeding edge gets virtually no attention. Sure, there are exceptions (the 2.1.x series Linux kernel comes to mind - Alan Cox is still releasing new versions, and even though the series in ~5 years old), but on the whole, the industry tends to lose interest in older tech, because the money is on the bleeding edge.
  • "... and do that because we must make the impossible deadline, come hell or high water."

    This is precisely the instruction that we recently received from a client. So in October and November, we pulled graveyard shifts and rattled up a gazillion lines of code to just get the features in, one way or another, buggy or not. More likely the former.

    So now we have a bug list that runs to about five or six hundred bugs. Not too surprising, if you ask me, considering the size of the project and the insane rush to get all the coding done, but now all of a sudden they're hugely worried about quality, and have frozen all features until the bug list is significantly reduced. So they had to put off the deadline after all!

    The cause of all these problems is the huge pressure to reduce time to market. You've got to get an edge on the other guy, and everybody's rushing ahead so frantically that you can only keep up by letting QA fall by the wayside. And the squeeze just keeps getting tigher and tighter, as if there's no limit that will ever be reached. But we've already reached it -- software quality has simply come up too short in too many products.

    There is another way, you know, but too few vendors are willing to take the chance -- be a little later than the competition, but aggressively market your product as superior in quality. It might work, but who has enough confidence to try it?
  • Gee, you Apple zealots are funny. Apple puts out a defective product and you get hostile towards the ones who point it out.

    Gee, Service Source lists a new part number for the front panel board.

    Maybe that's because Apple knows that the original boards were garbage. No, it's just for some "added feature" right?

    Could it be, you're one of the shitty AASPs that needs to be purged from the system?

    If by shitty you mean "Annoyed by the fact that Apple is selling known defective products to my customers." I guess that the answer would be yes.

    Yes, Apple solved the issue. No wonder they want to open their OWN stores..

    Yes, if they open their own stores they can force the employees to sing the praises of Apple no matter how badly their screwing their loyal customers.

    Apple and Sega have a long history of stranding their customers with useless products. Neither company will get another cent from me again.

    I notice that you didn't touch the issue of the power buttons in the iMac DV or the Power Supply/Analog boards in the summer 2000 iMacs.

  • That's the way it is. I'm not saying that's the way it should be. Honestly it pisses me off. But the most I can do about it is spend extra $ and go for whomever has the product with the least faults. Unfortunately that means buying just about every competing item and testing it. I don't have that time. Very few people do. Those that do run sites like [H]ardOCP or whatever. And still there's nothing that's exceptional from a quality standpoint. It's pretty sad.
  • Actually, EA Sports (a big player in the Sports Games field) is located in Vancouver, Canada.

    I remember hearing a while ago how Japanese companies are buying all the American companies. But guess who's buying the Japanese companies? The British.

    The Australians dominated the Olympics. The British are taking over the corporate world. The Canadians are plotting a military assault []. The Commonwealth will rise again! :-)
  • My first computer was an SGI indy, that I bought used without a HD. I spent four months screwing around with it and finally got it to work. I then made the mistake of buying a compaq cheapo to do my homework on. Wotta joke. A month and a half after I got it, the NS processor literally went up in smoke. it burned a dime sized hole in the top and melted the cooling fan on the heatsink. When I took it in to get it fixed, the store told me I had to replace it with the same chip. I told them the damn thing wasn't in any book and I needed a real chip to do the things I needed to do, and they tried to sell me a k6-2 for $200 installed. I laughed in the poor schmucks face and went and got meself one for $85. put it in and a month later it wouldn't shut off except by a hard shutdown, and when I took it in for that, the jerks told me I voided the warranty. The bitch won't take an aftermarket vidcard, and I went through three nics before I found one that would work. cheap, cheap, cheap. I will never buy a production machine again. The bitch wont even run linux right. Lesson Learned.
  • I can certainly relate to crappy hardware. I decided to get a Compaq from Best Buy because I am tired of maintaining my home hardware. First thing that wen was the network card. I didn't even realize it, since the diagnotic tool didn't give an error, so I thought it was a problem with my ISP. The guy from RoadRunner replaced the card and everything worked well. So I figure "That's not too bad. I'll just leave it like this." A week later the disk drive goes. Now I'm SOL, since my Mavica uses disks to store images (currently I'm using my laptop to save the images). I dont want to send my machine back because there's no guarantee that I'll get the same hard drive, and I have a lot of crap already installed on this one. I realy don't want to have to install it all again. At least there is a CD-RW, and, in the worst case, a network connection to my laptop and linux server for when I do backup. It's just such a pain in the ass.

  • by vergil ( 153818 ) <.moc.liamg. .ta. .bligrev.> on Wednesday December 06, 2000 @11:01AM (#576981) Homepage Journal
    Crappy manufacturing does deserve all the blame flung it's way.

    What I find more insidious, however, are the legal intricacies computer (and software) manufacturers employ to shield themselves from responsibility.

    Anyone remember Hill vs. Gateway 2000? []. In this case (I'm going from memory here), Gateway offered a 10th Anniversary Special computer to consumers that wasn't all it was advertised to be -- i.e. Gateway's ads said the speakers were "surround sound" and they weren't.

    Mr. Hill took Gateway to court, and discovered, to his surprise, that the shrinkwrapped EULA inside the computer box prevented him from suing the company, regardless of their bad faith. Instead (according to the EULA) he was forced to submit to arbitration, which inherently negated any class action status for the thousands of other consumers who were blatantly defrauded by Gateway's false claims. Furthermore (due to the nature of arbitration), the verdict was kept secret, preventing anyone else who had been ripped off from benefiting from the arbiter's decision.

    Vergil Bushnell

  • by photon317 ( 208409 ) on Wednesday December 06, 2000 @11:01AM (#576982)
    In my opinion the software is the primary problem with the pre-built PC market. The OS loads are _Really_ bad. A quick reload of the latest Win9X coupled with the latest drivers for the hardware (but minus all of the absolute crap utilities the mfg had running in the background) makes a world of difference. Unfortunately the consumer often doesn't know enough to do this.

    I'd say on a typical HP or Compaq, you get as much performance boost from the re-install as you would doubling your RAM... which may explain why they're loaded that way

  • While I agree with you, this doesn't excuse the companies that produce crappy code or products. Certainly a computer will have problems after it has been modified, new software installed, etc. The problem is when you get a brand new computer, only use the hardware that came with it and you still have problems and crashes. That is unacceptable
  • I work a computer store/isp/repair shop. We had someone bring a machine in once, about 3 years ago, that they had just purchased from Gateway. She was a nice older lady who didn't really know anything about computers and got confused by the tech support on the phone so she brought the machine to us. What we found inside was astonishing, the cards and the memory were just loose inside of the machine. I believe it was a video card and a sound card, just laying in the bottom of the case along with the memory.
    It was all quite astonishing.
  • mistake #0 (you know techs start counting at 0)
    was buying at future shop.
    whenever i go in to pick up blank cd's or something, i see a salesmen helping a family out with a compaq with printer, scaner, and a pile of god knows whatelse. the facts are
    1. salespeople are clueless
    2. are paid on commision, so theyll sell you the kitchen sink
    3. cost people more money then they need to spend to be able to send email and word process

    i work in a computer store as a tech/sales and im amazed by the number of people who want to replace a computer that doesent work (wont boot) rather then fix it.
    fixing it is usually a mater of reinstalling windows over itself and it works fine..
  • The fact that the author couldn't seem to tell hardware from software bugged me too. And, because of the differences between the two, his reference to Japan and the auto industry is bogus.

    The whole Demming/Japan thing is about doing the same opperation in exactly the same way, time after time to produce the desired physical product. Sorry, but industrial CD production pretty much has this problem beat. And that's that's the only physical part of software "production". If you're doing exact repitition while coding, you're ether an idiot or you're paid by the line.

    Whenever a programming task gets close to this level of repetition, someone writes a tool for it.

  • That's what a short-sighted company wants. A company that intends on being in business for a good long while wants to sell products that last so long that the user wishes it would break (as an excuse to buy a new one :)

    Companies don't make decisions: individuals do. Individuals who believe - often quite accurately - that the benefit they derive from making a decision that increases this quarter's profits by 75% will far exceed any harm done to a company of which they may well not even be an employee three years down the line. (Or, if they are an employee still, they may be in another department.)

    Large business have no stake in thinking ahead that far, because all the stakeholders can take the money and run while it looks good.

  • by m00t ( 256995 ) on Wednesday December 06, 2000 @10:47AM (#576997)
    Quality control is expensive. Just slap on a warranty and let the user test it for you.
  • Yeah, but if you payed proper attention to quality control when you made the jam you wouldn't have to spend any time sorting out the bugs afterwards.
  • Sorry if this sounds chauvinist or something, but, after reading most of my fellow /. contributors, I think I need to mention this: I've already noticed that Americans don't pay much attention about what is going on in Europe and prefer to think that the next big thing will come from an emerging country (typically India or China), or that, if it comes from a highly developped country (Japan), it will come from Asia anyway.

    FYI, my American friends, India may be a serious threat, Japan may be a serious threat, but your most dangerous competitor is actually the old and boring world, aka "socialist" Western Europe, which is filled with excellent engineers and mighty investors, and where the quality standards are culturally higher than in the US. Ok, this is old news, but what recently changed is that Europeans made a pretty good job in learning from Americans a few things about business, while avoiding many of the bad ideas, and that the EU has progressively built a pretty well-designed economic zone, with a huge market and healthy competition between the different countries.

    So, I know this doesn't sound as romantic, and I apologize for this, but please note that Cisco's most serious rival is probably Alcatel, Time-Warner's most serious rival is Vivendi-Universal, the cellular phones leaders are Scandinavian companies, the best performing car corporations these days are the Volkswagen and Renault groups, the leaders in video games are British and French, etc...
  • That makes me wonder about "closed system" games like Playstation or N64. Are the beta cycles on these things incredibly intense, or are the coder just that good? Or is it something inherent to the closed, proprietary nature of the platform that makes it easier to qrite bulletproof code (ie. a PC game has to support 3 different CPU types, dozens of video cards, input devices, sound cards, video modes, etc, whereas the feature set of a console is pretty much etched in stone)
  • For the most part, companies that sell flaky hardware and buggy software are addressing the reality that people want the latest and flashiest on their desktops, and are willing to put up with crashes and occasional repairs and returns. (Hint, that's how markets work.) That's why there are more people using Linux than OpenBSD. That's why users will put up with daily reboots of their Windows/MacOS boxes in order to use Word instead of PatheticWriter []. That's why you don't see "Level 5 certified" Indian companies leading the FPS market.

    Where quality is more important than new features, quality rules. Notice the author isn't complaining about bugs in her car's brake system.

  • Here is an example of a company that needs quality control Desert Devil []
  • There's a reason why NASA still uses computer equipment from 15 years ago - the new technology just doesn't handle the rigors of space. We all hunger for bigger better faster more, and rigorously tested product does not equal cutting edge. So suck it up and pay your $500 for 'guaranteed POS' or go dig your Commodore 64 out of the closet.
  • We have had dealing with many bad vendors, they seem to be the greatest thing since sliced bread at the start of the experience but soon fall way short of your expectations. It's easy for these companies to feel comfortable with a company and thus not give them the attention they need after a period of time.

    One hint to technicians and system admins; get regular quotes from a variety of vendors. This will keep them extremely honest and on the ball. If not, your soon at their mercy. You might experience shoddy assembly (I recieved and order for 12 complete systems, all without video cards) or non existant support or both.

    Just today we took posession of a server and raid array, which we ordered and waited a few extra days to have the disks installed, and it came without disks installed. Now this vendor has to send a person out to install them. It's not that we can't but because we paid and expected them to be installed.

    Most of all problems can be avoided

  • by TWX_the_Linux_Zealot ( 227666 ) on Wednesday December 06, 2000 @11:04AM (#577013) Journal
    ... are not designed to work around quality control.

    If you work in software, you want non-obvious bugs that are eventually found and require the $59.95 (or higher) upgrade version, or require all new purchases. These keep your revenue stream coming in for a long, long time, and let you technically get away with calling your release a 'new product' without actually changing many of the features (See Microsoft Office).

    If hardware is your game, you want your hardware to cease to function after two to three years, right after the warranty runs out. That way, the customer has to take their computer into Ma and Pa's computer repair, and Ma and/or Pa has to try to fix it, and it turns out that the new video card for your computer needs a different bus, so you need a new motherboard, so you need a new processor, and you need faster ram, etc, and in the end you are screwed. Everyone in the industry benefits from everyone else making shoddy hardware. The customer is mad in the end, but what can (s)he do about it?

    I worked field/bench service for 2 1/2 years, and had way too many of these types of problems to deal with. PCChips, Amptron, the now somewhat defunct Packard Bell, HP (pavilion series), Compaq (Presario series), and Acers were the biggest offenders. The Amptron and PCChips boards (which are from the same manufacturer) were the ones that we carried, because unless the customer asked for better, they wouldn't know the difference and sooner or later they'd be back. If they went to someone else because our hardware died, well, the chances were likely that a customer of another shop would come to us. Everyone juggled everyone else's customers, and in the end we all made a marginal profit off of screwing people perpetually.

    I refuse to buy components that I don't have experience with now. I work in a QA department, with mostly industrial PCs, and of all that caught me off guard, the cheap SIS AGP video cards are actually pretty damn good for 2d uses. The obvious ones like ASUS and ABIT and 3Com and such stand out, and we get to really pound stuff. If you really want to know what to put in your PC, don't ask your friendly neighbourhood service technician, ask someone who works QA with servers and high end workstations. That way, you'll get a real answer.

    "Titanic was 3hr and 17min long. They could have lost 3hr and 17min from that."
  • by MarcoAtWork ( 28889 ) on Wednesday December 06, 2000 @11:04AM (#577014)
    I don't agree, a computer accomplishes one task, which is to run programs, following your line of reasoning, a refrigerator accomplishes hundreds of tasks just because it happens to store hundreds of different foods...

    It is interesting that the main objection that comes up when there are talks about Quality in software is that computer programs are too complicated, well, building a skyscraper is IMHO just as complicated, but if the Empire State Building falls down, you can't just release Empire State Building Service Pack 2, can you ?

    IMHO the main problem is that the discipline of creating computer programs is still very 'new' compared to most of the others (architecture etc.) and after it will mature a bit more, everything will be just fine.

    Many (bad) programmers complain that QA stifles their creativity, now I wonder how many city planners would use the same excuse (no, really, multiplexing sewage with water in the same pipes is better, since it will take up less space. What do you mean I can't do that ? You are infringing on my creativity !)
  • Corporate mentality is to be the "first to market", and the suits make impossible deadline promises to customers and stockholders without having any knowledge of the product, how it works, how long it takes to build it, or the status of the current build.

    Half the problem with today's corporate world is that the SUITS never "worked their way up the ladder", so they have no CLUE on how their business model operates. I've seen so many executives shoot themselves in the foot making foolish decisions because they have no idea about their corporate work model, and then take their aggression/stress/frustration out on the IT people because they didn't meet the impossible deadline that HE had promised to some customer...
  • Just look at the report on Carnivore [] that was discussed here the other day.

    The complete cluelessness regarding quality assurance is pretty widespread. Heck, even when you have billions to throw at it like certain big companies, the slacker attitude is pretty hard to get around.

    so what do you expect when you have companies who do not have billions to throw around? Their business plans will not have things like QA built into them. Maube just a lick and a promise. When it does raise it's ugly head, the bean counter types scream and foam at the mouth. By then, it is way way way too late to stem the leak of cash. Who wants to double their estimates of development costs?

  • I've said it before, I'll say it again: I think it's very important that we should all read, and encourage others to read and participate in:

    The Forum on Risks to the Public in Computers and Related Systems []

    While certainly all us programmers should be reading it, much of the material is accessible to anyone who knows how to use a computer, and so really should be read by anyone who uses computers for anything of importance or makes policy decisions that involve computers.

    While the complexity of todays software systems make it unlikely that we'll ever have truly bug-free software, the situation can be a lot better than it is today. One thing that's needed is for the public to wake up and demand that software companies take responsiblity for their products, and to understand that they're being ripped off.

    Someone who's working towards that end is Mark Minasi [], the author of the book The Software Conspiracy []:

    There are no significant bugs in our released software that any significant number of users want fixed... The reason we come up with new versions is not to fix bugs. It's absolutely not. It's the stupidest reason to buy a new version I ever heard... And so, in no sense, is stability a reason to move to a new version. It's never a reason.

    -- Bill Gates

    Also see my own essay The Cross-Platform Manifesto []:

    In the world I came from pursuits like software development were supposed to be clean and pure things, exercises to stimulate and enrich the mind and advance the cause of reason and promote the betterment of human existence.

    Instead the industry which appears to be the main driving force behind the tremendous recent growth of the world economy, especially the US economy, is in my opinion a cancer that is desperately in need of the surgeon's knife.

    The Cross-Platform Manifesto was really an early attempt at collecting some thoughts on the subject of how we could use cross-platform application frameworks to promote a better software industry and make life better for developers and end users. My much briefer and I think better stated discussion of this is found on the ZooLib [] at Freeing the Developer from OS Vendor Shackles [].

    Michael D. Crawford
    GoingWare Inc

  • What the hell are you talking about ? Your comments are superfically sensible, but on reflection, utterly insane.

    > But creativity isn't necessary here. Just implement the function that's needed.

    If it's the same function, then it doesn't need to be implemented at all, you just use it again.
    If it's slightly different, then the common patterns need to be identified and factored out. Any time you write a new function you need to be creative, otherwise it doesn't need to be written at all. If you're writing a lot of similar functions, then you almost certainly haven't factored out the common stuff, which means that the code is longer and more bug prone than otherwise.

    Software should not be comparable to production line work when replication is free. The fact that it is indicates part of the problem.
    There is an equivalent to production line programming, but only by crappy coders. Good quality software is inherently creative - a lot of the creativity goes into finding ways to simplify, minimize, and increase flexibility, reuseability, generate good regression suites etc.

    > The fact that Chennai's Advanced Information Systems company has achieved the astonishingly low 0.05 per kloc defect rate, and that 22 of the 28 companies with a SEI Level 5 cert are in India, demonstrates ....

    It demonstrates nothing except that this stupid process has got fuck all to do with producing good quality software. Where does good software come from - more than anywhere it comes from start up organisations who are at "level 1" on the Humphries scale, or from open source developers who would also register at "level 1". The larger and more tightly managed software organisations become, the worse their software. This is no accident - it's because the focus on process results in the actual product being forgotten. Level 1 works, level 5, works, levels 2,3,4 produce nothing of value.
  • VCRs, TVs, dryers and refrigerators are tested as entire, complete units. There is little variation from one unit to another as it comes off the assembly line. Computers are built from a Tower of Babel of separate components

    Actually, VCRs, TVs, et al. use a LOT of different components. A TV will probably use amplifiers, tuners, a tube, microprocessor, power supply regulator, etc. each from a different company, much like a computer. And, the vast majority of computer users keep their computers as delivered from the factory and don't replace components.

    From your reasoning, all these products you described are Tower of Babels. I think computers could be much better. Have you met some of the guys that call themselves test "engineers"? Some of them are professional but way too many only know how to run Excel scripts someone else wrote for them.

  • This is so true. All of my early projects were ones that I had to maintain. It made me very cautious and careful. I have radical, innovative designs for things, but they're radical innovative designs that I've carefully thought through every implication of.

    My software is not defect free, but it doesn't have many. In fact, most of them are caught by me in unit testing by assert failures.

    If I succumbed (and I seem incapable of doing so) to the pressure every company I've worked for puts on me to produce software extremely quickly, I'd have made very buggy, crashprone software.

    One of the reasons I think Open Source software is often good in the reliability arena is the lack of pressure to produce now! now! now!

  • rant:What's more galling is the amount of time you waste on hold being forced to listen to someone else's appalling taste in Adult Orientated Rock (or, as I faced today, 101 Christmas Hits from groups that should have been strangled at birth), when all you want to do is tell them you need to swap the graphics card because its knackered.

    Then, when you finally get through, you have to go through a tedious process of diagnosing the fault you've already diagnosed, even though the first thing you did was explain why it was the graphics card that needed replacing. (The second thing was to explain to the person at the other end of the phone that the 'keyboard' is that big grey flat thing infront of them with all the buttons on.)

    Quality control of the 'technical support' staff wouldn't go amiss either.

    caveat:It's not the poor guy on the end of the phone's fault either - the companies don't want to invest in training them up to do thier job properly. Poor sods, I think it must be one of the most soul destroying things to have to do day in, day out.

  • Quality control has interesting problems in the computer industry. The issue is this, what happens if something breaks? In the case of a standard PC, not much. You lose time and lose money but in the end no one is hurt or dies. Plus with the companies declaring that they aren't liable for the reliability of their products in their licensing, nothing can be done to make them liable for the cost of this lost time and money. Hence the computer industry isn't changing, especially sice consumers have aquired a tolerance for Windows crashing occasionally. Some sort of large scale legal argument for making software and hardware companies liable for their work might be nice though.

    Also comparing a computer to a VCR is a false comparison. In terms of equipment and design, a computer is at least an order of magnitude more complex than a VCR with significantly more and more complex moving parts like the various components of the disk drives. The truth is that computers are assembled by computer companies but the parts are much more frequently built by someone else down the line. If a part breaks it is more likely its manufacturers fault not Dells. This is also not quite true for VCRs or toaster ovens.

    I also find it interesting that the author spends most of the last page of the article complaining about his Dell laptop and how crappy their tech support was. I think I'm seeing his personal motivation for this piece. Nice to see someone scratching his itch.

  • Bugs in software are like bugs in strawberry jam - You can eliminate most of them with a reasonable amount of effort, but if you want to try and eliminate all of them, it's going to be ridiculously expensive. So you get rid of the big ones and worry about the ones that slip through on a case-by-case basis.


  • by plopez ( 54068 ) on Wednesday December 06, 2000 @11:08AM (#577042) Journal
    until the buggy software actually kills someone. It is unfortunate but true that engineering disasters forced engineering fields to mature. But as software is pushed into more and more life critical roles (medical, aeronautical, automotive)
    Software Engineering as a discipline has to be taken more seriously and good engineering practices as well. There is a big difference between a carpenter and a Civil Engineer, just as there is a huge diference between a programmer (or coder) and a Software Engineer.

    I sincerely hope India does drive many US software out of business. Only through pain will the lesson s be learned.
  • by seanldunn ( 55855 ) on Wednesday December 06, 2000 @11:11AM (#577045)
    The author in this article talks about "Japanese perfection" and harps on a few of India's software houses having less then .05 defects per 1000 lines of code.

    This is nonsense. Any industry that releases new generations of every more complex products every one and a half years or shorter is bound to be riddled with bugs and flaws. Flaws are especially prevalent if the product uses lots of untested new technologies.

    Japanese perfection? To us it may look that way, but for many of brand spanking new products released in Japan, they are hardly error free. Often before a Japanese company sells to the foreign market, they will release it domestically for over a year to try to work out the bugs. An example: The Playstation 2 release in Japan was full of flaws. By the time a Japanese product gets to North America or Europe engineers will have found and fixed most of the most glaring errors in the design and manufacturing process.

    Generally every new technology will have flaws as everyone gets used to the new tech and while we refine the manufacturing process from the lab to the factory floor, such as 0.13-micron lithography. Today >1GHz CPUs have small yields, in a year the yields and reliability of these chips will be far higher as the technicians tweak the manufacturing product. Just the same way as we can build a 100 MHz today with almost 100% yield.

    The bottom line is: If you want perfection and something that is incredibly reliable, you as a rule cannot get bleeding edge equipment.

  • The fact is: software development takes time. Lots of it. And it takes more time than even the designers and programmers themselves expect. Is there a market for almost perfect, expensive products that do not ship before they are tested sufficiently? No, because the users wants the software for a task or problem now - he does not want to wait nor does he want to pay astronomous amounts of money for it. The whole marketing process really relies on this simple principle: sell it. At this point I totally agree with the author of the article, but the ones to blame are not the techies, but the users and the sales managers. They decide about the features and when the product should be available. Techies can only match these conditions by producing half-finished, roughly tested software - sorry about that!
  • Actually, it turns out that, if you add the British and French worldwide market shares, you have at least two thirds of the whole market. Americans are still quite big on "violent" video-games, doom-like and others, but very small in other areas. The French (Infogrammes and Ubisoft) are especially big on "nice" small kid-oriented video games, and North America accounts for one half of their sales.
  • techno-capitalism" is just the current manifestation of the way American capitalism has always worked.

    You mean the strategy of "charge as much as possible and deliver as little as you can get away with?" Yeah - and the market has come to accept it, too. I can remember the 70's, when Japanese auto imports began to claim more and more of the market. People were amazed at how much car they could get, and how reliable they were, for the price. The American consumer was unused to such value.

    We still are. But then again, we have access to some of the best bargains on the planet. There aren't many other places where a consumer can get as much for their dollar (or ruble or ecu or yuan) as we do. Sure, most "durable goods" aren't as durable as they should be. Maybe our electronic gizmos deliver function, but suffer flaws in the interface, utility, workmanship and/or materials. But at least we have access to them.

    After the discussion of the influence Japan had on Detroit, it should come as no surprise that of all the commodities introduced since the industrial revolution, the auto, and its ancillary products, are the only things where the US consumer gets a real value for his money. Got $10k? If you shop smart, you can buy a car that will run reliably for more than 10 years, at over 25 mpg, with average annual maintenance costs of just a few hundred a year. That's a deal!

    Need gas? It's the cheapest anywhere in the world except for places like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Auto services? At $40/year, AAA Membership is one of the best bargains in America. In very few other countries can an individual own and operate a car for such a small fraction of his income. The only better value an American will find is in pre-industrial products: food and apparel, primarily.

    But consider this: In most places on this globe, people spend more of their income on sustenance than we Americans spend on our autos.

    So although your thesis appears valid from an American's point of view, from a Ugandan's or Korean's perspective, it's trite at best.

  • by wnissen ( 59924 ) on Wednesday December 06, 2000 @01:02PM (#577060)
    I took a class on Software Project Management from Prof. Don Remer, and one of the things he talked about was how Sony has done Six Sigma for their manufacturing and design processes. They look at why and where things break, and fix them. It's a process of continuous improvement, not just some big push to get all the bugs out of a design. You're going to miss some bugs anyway, and if you fix them afterwards, the cost is huge. Anyway, according to him, Sony no longer turns on the TVs coming off the assembly line to see if they work. Believe it or not, this is a sign of good process.

    The reason is that they have put a lot of effort into making sure their development process is good and it results in a refined manufacturing process. They don't turn on the TVs because they don't have to! The failure rate is so low that it costs more to test than to fix the one in a million (give or take an order of magnitude) that don't work. Software ain't got nothin' on that.

    Well, unless you count all the times software is shipped without any testing, but that's for a different reason....

  • by John Murdoch ( 102085 ) on Wednesday December 06, 2000 @11:11AM (#577063) Homepage Journal


    Let's take a step back here, and analyze what this article is really about. The writer had a problem with two modems and a printer driver--but bitched until she got somebody to come on-site to replace the motherboard and the entire printer. Her solution to these problems is to cite examples of Indian enthusiasm for software engineering.

    There's just one little problem--software engineering has ZIP to do with the problems this not-quite-up-to-speed writer had. Her modem problems? I'd bet money she had IRQ conflicts, but the tech on the phone couldn't walk her through fixing them. The simple solution was to send a human out there--hence, replace the motherboard. The real solution: a legacy-free box that connects a modem without hardware interrupts. Her printer driver problems? Yes--there are crappy drivers. That's a marketing problem. But a printer driver problem is not solved by shipping a new printer--and for an allegedly experienced computer journalist to have to wait months for a CD-ROM to arrive with a printer driver (what--she couldn't find how to download a LaserJet driver from is simply laughable.

    I'm a big believer in software engineering. But I'm also a big believer in quality journalism--and this article most definitely isn't quality journalism at all. This article essentially boils down to whining from a particularly clueless user about how she can't manage to get her computer to work. The solution she suggests--software engineering--has nothing to do with the problem. All the software engineering in the world isn't going to solve her IRQ problems with her modem--a USB port will. The best software engineering in the world may produce the best printer driver in the world--but printers will still need drivers. Updating a printer driver will always require replacing the driver--not the printer.

    Bottom line: the article is a waste of time.

  • (snip)

    Quality in software is that computer programs are too complicated, well, building a skyscraper is IMHO just as complicated, but if the Empire State Building falls down, you can't just release Empire State Building Service Pack 2, can you ?


    Actually, you're a little off on that... Perhaps one of the most recognizable skyscrapers in the NY skyline, the Citibank building, has just such a flaw in it. The way it was originally designed, if it had encountered winds over 78mph it was at serious risk of collapes (due to poor design of the steel framework, IIRC). Shortly after it was finished, and a rare hurricane was headed towards NYC a the builder secretly replace and/or modified many beams (bolting them instead of welding them), essentially providing a "service pack".

    One of the lessons I remember from an engineering class. More information is available here [].
  • by Lord Kano ( 13027 ) on Wednesday December 06, 2000 @11:36AM (#577076) Homepage Journal
    I've worked for Apple, Compaq, and IBM authorized warranty repair centers over the years. I have to say that Compaq is the worst. It has even gotten to the point when someone will call and say "I have a Compaq that needs warranty service." and we'd respond "Broken Presario huh?". We were right about 90% of the time.

    Apple has recently been running a close second. The new iMacs, the summer 2000 and the earlier iMac DVs were plagued by power problems. The early iMac DV has a design flaw which causes the power button to become stuck so that it can't reliably be powered up when it's pushed. The summer 2000 models have been blowing power/analog boards like nobody's business. I have personally done more power/analog board replacements than I care to remember. Lastly the PMG4s have a problem with the front panel board. This can appear to be a power supple problem, you put in a new power supply and guess what? Problem still exists. A $0.50 board is defective in lots of these machines.

    Apple & Compaq have to know that there is a problem with these machines, but still they do nothing about it. Instead of going through the expense of a recall, they just fix them as the blow out. I think that's shitty. Some people depend on these things to make a living and when your machine is down for a week because of a flaw that they know about, Apple & Compaq abdicate any responsibility for the lost income.

    I think that's dirty, they shouldn't treat customers like that.

  • by TheTomcat ( 53158 ) on Wednesday December 06, 2000 @11:39AM (#577079) Homepage
    In 1996, I bought an extremely overpriced Acer Aspire from Future Shop in Moncton, NB, Canada.

    The salesman told me that the New Cyrix 6x86's were great, so I bought it, and took it home. (mistake number 1, although, I never had trouble with the chip, other than being extremely slow).

    Pulled the tower out of the styro-foam, and heard "clunk". Sounded like an ISA card was loose or something. Took the machine back to Future Shop, and they gave me another machine. Took that machine home, BSOD'd on the first boot, and I kept getting BSODs. Called Acer tech support, waited for 45 minutes on hold, got a tech who barely spoke english, explained the problem, and he declared that the RAM in my machine was bad. Gave me a number to call to have it replaced. Called the number, the repair shop told me that it would be up to 2 weeks before I could have the machine I've never used fixed, so I took it back to Future Shop, and had it replaced after arguing with the sales manager.

    So, I'm on machine 3, which is working alright, but I notice that the hard drive is incredibly slow, so next time I'm in the store (a week later), I mention that to the salesman, and he tells me "oh yeah, the Acer techs were in here earlier this week, and they did some stuff to the hard drives. Bring your machine in, and I'll switch you for a good one." Machine number 4.

    6 months later, my CDRom fails.. I sold the machine after having the CDRom fixed.

    Needless to say, I think twice before buying Acer, now.
  • I'm talking about when you make the jam. Do you have any idea how difficult it would be to make any kind of food bug free? That's why the FDA allows trace amounts of bug parts in all your food.

    Happy lunching!


  • Most of the customers (like, all but one) didn't even have a clue what was in their computer. When they have such a lack of knowledge then maybe they get what they deserve, but go pick up your newspaper, and turn to the section where the cheapass stores list their computers. $599 computer? $499 computer? that's what usually show up here, and these don't have MSN rebates or the like. The tech shops buy the cheap parts because the consumer doesn't know that a motherboard with video, sound network, modem (Etc) integrated will be unrepairable if something breaks, let alone that the board is shoddy to begin with, and as long as tech shops want to take this board and turn around and mark it up what percent they do, someone will supply it. Out of the three different service companies I worked for, only one was run by a technically minded person. The other two were run by 'businessmen', people basically with a business to make money who didn't really care how they made their money, but they got a degree in business and dammit, they were gonna make a buck. They were going to buy those cheapass parts en masse, mark them up sometimes as high as 30%, and sell them, one year warranty, period. Suckers would come flying in to buy, because they were cheap. These 'businessmen' didn't listen to us techs, they just bought the crap and made us deal with the irate customer, and would come out when the customer was yelling with the problem and be apolegetic and give them a deal or something. Yeah, a good computer might sell for $3500 and make the company $800 in profit, but a bunch of $599 computers with only $300 worth of parts would sell like hot cakes. Since someone has to supply the parts, they get made more and more cheaply, so the cost of QA and engineering doesn't have to be amortized through the profits nearly as much, and the junk supplier makes more money. The one hurt in all of this is the consumer. I sure as hell am not going to trust a company that claims to be a PC company, not after what I was made to do to customers.

    "Titanic was 3hr and 17min long. They could have lost 3hr and 17min from that."
  • How quaint.

    Large bureaucratic machines always lead to corruption and inefficiency, because they decouple the incentives to get a good performance review from the incentives to actually do your job well. In a competitive market economy with free exchange of information, this can only go so far before a company's reputation catches up to it. In a managed economy with suppression of anti-government speech, the death spiral can sink to lower levels -- nobody is going to start competing with the People's tractor factory, and nobody is going to make its management listen to the truth.

  • So although your thesis appears valid from an American's point of view, from a Ugandan's or Korean's perspective, it's trite at best.

    I know. However, I didn't want to get all worked up into a long rant about why capitalism sucks (it would be more eloquent that that statement, but you get the idea).

    At a global level there is always the risk of economic meltdown due to America's (and the western worlds', really) ridiculous materialism and lack of perspective, not to mention our current implementation of capitalism. But this wasn't the article to discuss that.
  • I'd add that as your product gets larger you want to *engineer* your code, not go through all night hack sessions. One isn't as fun as the other but one is definitely more reliable. Unfortunately, market pressures and timetables often dictate how strongly you engineer a product.

    Another point, creative code tends to be bad because it incurrs too much maintenance overhead. Unless this is the super duper optimized inner loop of your app it's almost always a better choice to go with a plain method of code contruction than one that takes shortcuts and is 'neat'.

    Sadly, programmers aren't being exposed to Software Engineering principles as much as they should. And when they are it's too little, often only a token gesture. An example: my former university is creating a Software Engineering degree... it's in the School of Engineering, not Computer Science. Which one would one suppose has future programmers, hmm.

    I'd like to see if sites like SourceForge, which provide many of the tools needed for a good engineering process, can affect how many of us 'garage developers' create their products.
  • You are absolutely correct, but most computer (l)users seem to have a higher tolerance for failures of computer equipment (be it hardware- or software-related) than your average geek. They accept that it's going to fail periodically, or even expect it. When it does, they hit the reset switch like nothing happened and keep going. Most people don't seem to realize that it doesn't have to be that way. If they had to pull over to the side of the road and reboot their car every couple of hundred kilometers, how long do you think they would tolerate it? But for some reason, they do the same thing with their computers and never even give it a second thought - just hit the button and get a cup of coffee while it reboots.

    So I guess my point is that not many people are going to vote with their pocketbooks as you suggest, since they believe that poor quality is the norm, or even inevitable.
  • Akron, OH (Disassociated Press) - The Brimstone Tire and Rubber Company announced suprise plans today to enter the software market. In a press conferance held by company CYAO Jonathan Blowout, officials told startled stockholders, "In light of recent consumer product liability costs, we have reviewed our product positioning and concluded that the software market has a much better fit to our risk/reward profile. We will begin phasing out the tire sector and should announce our flagship product, Brimstone "Doors" and a compatible office suite very soon now. Consumers will soon be able to enjoy the same high quality of engineering they have come to expect from out automotive products on their personal computers." Analyst quickly upgraded the stock from "dump" to "sell", citing research indicating that, unlike the automobile parts sector where quality products usually achieve market dominance, the software industry has a long standing history of being dominated by shoddy, defective and incomplete products.
    A former stockroom clerk, recently promoted to Systems Architect and speaking on terms of anonymity said, "Hell yeah! If a tire explodes and causes an accident killing a little child, you have a big problem. But if a database engine has a defect that deletes that same child's entire medical history and backup records, pfft, that's just too bad, you can't sue us! Besides, anytime that happens is a great time to remind consumers that a seperate, documented license, invoice and proof of purchase is required for each workstation per UCITA."
    Brimstone closed at 3 1/4, down only 3/8.
  • Ive received 3 HP 4500N Colour LaserJets in the last 2 months, $7000CDN each - one was DOA.

    Of the 300 or so Dell Desktops my OA people put out, 15 were DOA.

  • It's easy to be critical of software engineering when all your doing is writing little op-ed pieces for Salon. What if (as a writer) you had to write an article that every single reader would understand without error? As a programmer that's what you're asking me to do.

    Do you know why computer manufacturer X can't tell you why your modem didn't work? 'Cause it would probably take many times the cost of the machine you bought to test every single component, test all the drivers etc. It's just not feasible to do this. The complexity of the hardware alone in a modern PC is pretty mind boggleing. Your cpu has millions of transistors on it. Would you like me to test all those for you too Mr Salon? Are you nuts? When nasa had to upgrade the chips on the hubble telescope do you think the hubble got the latest whiz-bang pentium? No. It got a 486 (or something like that, I can't remember of the top of my head). Do you know why? Because NASA wanted to thoroughly test the chips before they put them up on the satelite. And after two years of rigorous testing they still didn't test every machine state. And you want me to "test" your system to tell you why your modem isn't working. What a joke.

    Now onto the topic of software (your op-ed piece switches between the two fairly regulary, even though they are quite different. I will too.) Suppose you want to thoroughly test a program that allows a name (up to 20 chars) an address (20 chars also) and a phone number (10 digits). This program is so rediculessly simple testing it should be easy right? There are 26^20 combinations for the name field, 26^20 combinations of input for the address field, and 10^10 combinations for the phone number field. This gives a total number of possiblites as approximately 10^66.(I borrowed this example from Steve McConnell's Code Complete btw). Even if you miss one of these test cases you cannot authoritavely say that your code is bug free. So what if you take a sensible approach and test all they types of input, make sure your test cases cause all paths through a function to be executed, test all your boundary conditions, use some utilities to fill all the memory on your system with "data" so you can test for un-initialized variables etc, etc. What then? Move on and do the same to the operating system? The drivers? Ultimately the complexity of the whole system is so great that no-one has the resources to test everything.

    I certainly agree that more rigourous quality assurance measures have to be put in place. I think open-source software/free software is certainly a step in the right direction, but ultimately the systems you're dealing with are insanely complex. What we need is new testing methodologies, not vague winging from someone from salon, just because they had a problem with their modem.

  • To see a good demonstration of lack of QA, look no further than computer games. Hundreds of thousands of patches abound, many soon after the game is released. And a majority aren't "let's add this cool new feature" patches but "oops, that's one hell of a bug we missed" patches.
  • From what I've read, Intel dealt with the increasing transistor count and complexity of their chips by investing large amounts of money in design automation software. The early chips were laid out by hand, with lots of mylar. The layout on later chips was mostly automated. Supposedly, the buggy 80286 was a wakeup call for Intel, that the old methods couldn't deal with new designs.
  • by dmuth ( 14143 ) <> on Wednesday December 06, 2000 @11:21AM (#577110) Homepage Journal
    "So what about those companies that whine that giving consumers bug-free products would mean raising their prices by as much as 50 percent?"

    I'd tell them to go talk to Linus, RMS, and ESR. :-)

  • VCRs, TVs, dryers and refrigerators are tested as entire, complete units. There is little variation from one unit to another as it comes off the assembly line.

    Computers are built from a Tower of Babel of separate components. The CPU, motherboard, memory, graphics and hard drive may all be high quality, tested components on their own. Combine them all into a single unit and you end up with a flaky problem child with all kinds of unforeseen interactions and problems.

    It just shows that computer technology is still in its infancy. It's a wonder any computer works given the way we cobble them together.
  • by MillMan ( 85400 ) on Wednesday December 06, 2000 @11:22AM (#577113)
    "techno-capitalism" is just the current manifestation of the way American capitalism has always worked. I mean this quite literally, it's been this way all the way back to the beginning of the industrial revolution.

    The best example I have is from a History of Science class I took involved railroads. Americans would build many miles of track per day, at the expense of quality, as the tracks would break often, and sometimes they even ran them on top of the snow(!). When it would melt, the track would have to be rebuilt. The British, on the other hand, took their time and built tracks that would last.

    In the modern day things are even worse, because of broadcast technologies that gave rise to the advertising industry. Now companies waste money convincing you that you need product x, regardless of how good product x is and if you even need it. They do a good job of convincing, too. It has brought our economic system to a new low, in my opinion, as far as the effect on our society.

    Whether or not this additude will harm the US in the long run remains to be seen. Mentioning India as a threat seems to be a stretch right now, they have a pretty limited industrial base as far as I know. Japan and Germany seem to be the obvious threats (personally I view them as healthy competition). The focus in Germany is on making a good product at the possible expense of profit. In America it's the other way around. Japan seems to have a better balance somewhere in the middle, although that doesn't explain the recession/slow growth they've had over the past 11 years.

    Hopefully competition from other coutries can "keep it real" for american corps as Japan did for the automakers.
  • by skoda ( 211470 ) on Wednesday December 06, 2000 @11:47AM (#577114) Homepage
    "If hardware is your game, you want your hardware to cease to function after two to three years, right after the warranty runs out."

    That's what a short-sighted company wants. A company that intends on being in business for a good long while wants to sell products that last so long that the user wishes it would break (as an excuse to buy a new one :)

    That's exactly what Toyota & Honda have achieved. The general understanding of the typical car buyer is that a Honda or Toyota will outlive your desire for it to still be alive. (Of course, now that the reputation is firmly established, these companies charge above average prices). The issue for the consumer is whether they are willing to pay the greater price for the usually higher quality product, or pay less and hope that a lower cost product doesn't cost more in the long run.

    Ironically, the bewildering array of parts for computers, the makers thereof, and the pretty rapid turnover of companies (compared to the auto industry) may be what is currently saving the computer industry from having to reap what it sows.

    Since people can't generally form a consensus about a specific product or brand name, word can't spread that "EscortVideoCard" should be avoided while "CivicVideoCard" will cause no problems.

    Perhaps what is really needed is for the general domination of a few competitive players in each category (but no virtual monopolies) that allow consumers to form grounded opinions on the relative quality, and thus force the companies to shape up or ship out.

    Or, perhaps, as the author suggests, India or somesuch will move in, eat our collective lunch (as happened with the auto industry, RAM production, quality cameras & lenses, and consumer electronics, to name a few over the past 50 years), but in the long run cause US companies to produce quality products (as happened with autos, but not with RAM, cameras, and electronics :( )

    (BTW - I bought an Escort a few years ago, because the Civic cost much more, gambling that I wouldn't pay that difference in more in repairs over the car's life. And that's the other problem. Consumers can be finicky, two-faced, unloyal, and buy cheap rather than quality :/ )
    D. Fischer
  • you're link was very descriptive, but I think it has at least a few things wrong in what is now becoming an urban legend.

    The structural engineer William LeMessurier spoke at my school, and I was there. First of all, he said it was an intern of his, not just a student told to study the building. Second, without the reinforcement it was something like a 70 year wind, the chances of it falling right away were greatly overstated by you and your link.

    And another really cool thing about that building is those skinny supports - they were perfectly strong enough, but the architech said they couldn't be there, they were too skinny, people would run away. So they put a fire escape around them, to make them LOOK stronger.
  • It's not so much they're "closed" systems as stable ones. The original PS architecture, at this point, is known inside out. It never changes. Developers can use existing tools to shell out a game in months, not years -- even though the processor is less than 100mhz. Paltry by today's standards.

    It still amazes me that the PS and N64 can produce reasonable (but pixelated and blurry respectively) 3D on = 100 mhz systems.

  • by Pahroza ( 24427 ) on Wednesday December 06, 2000 @10:51AM (#577126)
    What I worry about the most is receiving a product only to have it recalled. If a firm made sure to begin with that their product was in good working order (under all conditions) it would save them money in the long run. I know that sometimes bugs only pop up after months of use, and that should also be tested. I recently bought a machine that had a bad logic board. This had been a known issue. After two months of use, the board had a circuit that fried. It took two weeks to get the machine back. I'm sure that the company doesn't like having to pay for warrantied work. More extensive tests would ease some of these problems. Is there really no way to ensure more quality yet still be "first to market"? I know it's a cut-throat industry, but customer satisfaction should be the ultimate goal.
  • how would the auto industry appear if autoworkers felt it was their perogative to "be creative" while doing assembly line work? This is exactly what programmers act like. The smart auto companies give their line workers time to be creative, during process review, so that they can concentrate on quality the rest of the time.

    I respectfully disagree. First, auto assembly is dramatically different from software engineering (aka programming); the latter consists almost entirely of design activity. Being a programmer is more like being, say, an architect. And a good architect is being creative all of the time.

    Second, the best auto companies apparently support their line employees being creative all of the time, too. Those bottom-up process improvements would be the result of time spent thinking creatively while doing assembly work.

    Lack of mastery of the basics and inattention to detail are problems, as you say, but they are not caused by excessive creativity. Rather, the problem is lack of experience and judgement, and (as usual) above all, bad management.

    I believe that creative thinking is required to develop a fine engineering judgement about questions like just when certain kinds of sorts are and aren't appropriate and why.

  • by Oztun ( 111934 ) on Wednesday December 06, 2000 @10:52AM (#577133)
    From the article:

    In analysing repair histories of 13 kinds of products gathered by Consumer Reports, PC World found that roughly 22 percent of computers break down every year -- compared to 9 percent of VCRs, 7 percent of big-screen TVs, 7 percent of clothes dryers and 8 percent of refrigerators.

    A computer is something that accomplishes 100's of task so natrually it would need more maintanance than products that only accomplish one. The author seems to overlook this entirely. Not sure if there is any point to reading the article any further after a statement like that.
  • "Fiduciary responsibility" is just another way of saying "I don't get paid to listen to my conscience".

    Or to quote a Dilbert cartoon: "A big fat bonus today, is worth more than the entire company tomorrow."
  • I had an acer aspire too. At least mine was a genuine intel chip, but I had a ton of other problems. The CDROM in mine quit after about 6 months too. Half the pci cards I used in that machine wouldn't work. Those that did worked marginally well. I had a capture card that was too much for the machine to handle as a P133 but my trusty P60 here handled it just fine. There were plenty of other strange software glitches as well. Some of them I guess I could attribute to the fact that it ran windows, but some were just STRANGE.

    In fact, every proprietary system I've bought has had problems. Nothing so major that the average consumer would probably notice, but I tend to overtweak my hardware and software, not to mention running the systems 24/7 and these problems show up slowly over a period of time. however, I still have a clone 386 system put together in late 89 AND ITS STILL RUNNING FINE! even though I probably haven't powered down the thing more than 30 times since I got it.

  • by ckedge ( 192996 ) on Wednesday December 06, 2000 @11:30AM (#577151) Journal

    > There's just one little problem--software engineering has ZIP to do with
    > the problems this not-quite-up-to-speed writer had. Bottom line: the article is a waste of time.

    Bullshit. I'm a software engineer in a company that writes monitoring software for mission critical back end systems. In my personal life, I've grown more and more and more frustrated at the utter shit I have to put up with in software on my home computer.

    It's not a problem if you're granny six pack and all you want to do is read your e-mail and browse the net for a few hours a week, but try and do anything more than simple, and you get beat to death by software bugs. Quite ironically, I now harbour a savage hatred of all the other software companies out there churning out all the garbage, the managers that run them, and the people that own them.

    A couple months ago I ended up not using my home computer for 6 weeks for one reason or another, and boy, I didn't miss a thing because what I did miss was completely compensated by the fact that I wasn't struggling with crappy software and bugs.

    I routinely tell friends and family who don't yet have a computer - "your're not missing anything, $2000 just to read email and browser the web 3 hours a week isn't worth it".

  • by rgmoore ( 133276 ) <> on Wednesday December 06, 2000 @11:54AM (#577155) Homepage

    One thing that bothered me deeply about the article is that the author made very little distinction between hardware and software quality problems. I realize that this probably reflects the majority, non-tech view of computers (the computer is a unit that succeeds or fails as a unit, not as hardware or software) but it made the article less comprehensible. Most of the specific problems that he talked about sound as though they were hardware problems, but the experts he consulted were talking about curing software reliability. This is probably reasonable, since reliable, high quality hardware is available, and the companies that produce junk often go out of business when people stop buying their crap. Of course high quality, reliable software is available too, but most desktop PCs don't use it. I'm inclined to agree with the closing statement of the article: we won't get high quality software until companies suffer financially from putting out crappy software.

  • From the article: "Critics of Humphrey's high-quality software regimen -- which imposes strict performance measures on programmers -- protest that it cramps creativity. ... 'It's a good thing for the technology that so few people are disciplined in the way Humphrey proposes,' grumbles a techie reviewer..."

    This critic misses the whole point. There are places for creativity. Two good examples are the R&D department and process review and improvement meetings. But creativity is not necessary when crafting a quality, reliable product. In fact, it gets in the way of reliability.

    Now, I know this isn't going to be a popular argument on Slashdot, but sometimes good medicine tastes bad. Consider it this way: how would the auto industry appear if autoworkers felt it was their perogative to "be creative" while doing assembly line work? This is exactly what programmers act like. The smart auto companies give their line workers time to be creative, during process review, so that they can concentrate on quality the rest of the time.

    I know, the analogy between autos and computers breaks down quickly, and it breaks down pretty damn early with software. But there's still a point to be made. Many programmers (and engineers), especially young ones, are too eager to be doing the "elite" work, that they don't pay attention to detail. They want to go straight to designing better suspensions instead of just installing the struts. (I know. I've been there.) But it builds character to do the rote, mundane work - you learn how to check your work as you do it, and fix errors as they are made, so that you or someone else doesn't have to come back and fix it later. This talent is especially necessary in programming.

    Perfect example: If your attention is focused on writing the slickest, most 31337 bubble sort for the product your team is developing, you are going to introduce more errors than if you had just instantiated the algorithm you've used a hundred times before. But creativity isn't necessary here. Just implement the function that's needed. If they had needed a high performance sort function, it would have been in the requirements handed to you when you started. As the first Project Engineer I worked under used to say: "Better is the enemy of good enough."

    The fact that Chennai's Advanced Information Systems company has achieved the astonishingly low 0.05 per kloc defect rate, and that 22 of the 28 companies with a SEI Level 5 cert are in India, demonstrates that the Indians understand this point, and proves the "techie reviewer" dead wrong. He sounds just like another 'leet code jockey who's whining because Humphrey's telling him he can't doodle in your POS transaction software anymore...

  • The thing that pops into my mind as far as quality control is concerned is "Matrox". They are just about the only VGA-card producing company that refuses to bring the card on the market before the drivers are finished, extensive testing is complete etc. This results in them launching their cards later than the competition and relatively expensive, causing them to lose a big bite out of the profits. The upside is that a lot of semi-knowledgable users who switched to Matrox never switch back, so they do have a loyal user base. BTW, they're not entirely on their own, ATI does a pretty good job on testing before the selling as well...
  • I know it's a cut-throat industry, but customer satisfaction should be the ultimate goal.

    Nope, it's the almighty buck that's the ultimate goal. $$$$$$$$$$$

  • To make money, suppliers must give consumers what they want. (This does not stop suppliers by creating a false demand but that's not my point).
    My point is, most shopping for technology is price oriented, not quality oriented... and the suppliers have responded.
  • Re: Cheap cars and gas
    The only better value an American will find is in pre-industrial products: food and apparel, primarily.

    (cynic mode engaged) It only appears that way because you haven't factored in all the hidden costs of the car in the USA, such as the enormous gas-price subsidy laughably known as "defense spending" which comes out of your taxes.
    (cynic mode off)


  • by Atomic Frog ( 28268 ) on Wednesday December 06, 2000 @10:55AM (#577169)
    If you push up the software quality, make sure it rarely (never?) crashes, and you do proper studies to make sure it works the way people expect it to work, then our economy goes bust!

    - No more tech. support jobs
    - No more "Word 97 for Dummies" books
    - No more "Learn Windows 95 in 1 week!" books
    - Much less upgrading because that word processor you purchased 5 years ago still works like it should and there are no bugs to fix, contains _only_ the features you use, so no upgrade needed

    Look at the car industry. All you ever do is gas up and take in for maintenance every 12-24000km.
    (Okay, unless you're one of those dummies who bought a Chevy Cavalier...)
  • Hmm. Discussion revolving around this post reminds me of why I quit coding as a full-time gig a few years back. I'm an old fart, I'll be the first to admit it, and one aspect of my old fartsterism is a refusal to make like a hampster and churn out crappy code just to make some from-the-ass deadline. Another reason I'm no longer coding for a living is, to be honest, after 20 years it got boring.

    Back to the subject: IMAO there's plenty of room for both creativity and discipline in computer software but today, in our culture, creativity is 'cool' and discipline is so, like, old-wave. We see lots of the one and precious little of the other. I see quite a lot of creativity in software design; I see little useful creativity in the actual coding. Many years ago I went through a couple of years of friendly warfare with a colleague who insisted that creative code was better code. Several years later, when he was spending all of his time maintaining his 'creative' code because no one else could follow the clever ideas, he had changed his mind. It's always more fun to do something new than to climb those old creaking stairs one more time.

    All-night coding marathons are, in my experience, a Bad Idea from the start. Most of what I did after midnight turned out to be a complete crock and often the clever crap that consumed me from midnight to 7:00 AM or so was easily replaced in a couple of hours once I was awake. Of course, it's still fun to look at it the next day and wonder where one's mind had wandered off to the previous night... :)

    Here's some heresy for you: Windows doesn't suck because MS people can't code, Windows sucks because if it worked well, Microsoft would have to work a lot harder to feed the gravy train. Unix sucks because of antique design and lack of design discipline, not because hackers can't code. In my view Linux/BSD/et al could sweep microsoft far, far away if someone -anyone- would create and enforce design guidelines. But no one will: free-software today is a creative anarchy, which means we see lots of poorly or incompletely implemented great ideas and much, much redundency.

  • the leaders in video games are British and French, etc...

    I think you're mistaken here - I suspect it's more the case that there is significant difference in tastes in the EU and USA, and naturally, the locally produced product caters for those tastes best. Were you in the USA, I think you'd find that the leaders in games were American, likewise EU companies probably lead the European market. I suspect sports games (soccer games for example) might be a good example - I get the impression that they're huge in Europe, and of no interest in the USA (I live in neither area).
  • Perhaps one of the most recognizable skyscrapers in the NY skyline, the Citibank building, has just such a flaw in it. The way it was originally designed, if it had encountered winds over 78mph it was at serious risk of collapes (due to poor design of the steel framework, IIRC).

    Sort of -- it wasn't a design flaw, but a contractor error. Rivets were specified, but bolts were used instead. The bolts would shear, rivets wouldn't.

    The wind problem wasn't just winds over 78mph, but winds at a 45 degree angle (corner winds). NYC code didn't specify for these winds, which normally wouldn't matter. The problem arose because the land owners (Catholic church) specified that the church on the corner couldn't be torn down. So, the main structural supports were in the middle of the sides instead of the corners. That's why corner winds were a problem.

    The really COOL part of the building's design was a "dampener" on the top floor. It was a several ton block of concrete that moved opposite to the buildings sway, thus dampening the sway of the building.

    The repairs were made in secret, but as the hurricane approached, the public was alerted to the problem. Luckily, repairs were finished, and the hurricane wandered off into the Atlantic.

    (Girlfriend's an architect -- we watch a LOT of TLC/Discover/

  • I worked for Gateway at the time. IIRC (and it's been a while) some of the problems with the system were...
    - The system was advertised as having a Matrox Millenium video card. While the card was manufactured by Matrox, and had the same chipset as the Matrox Millenium, it was actually an OEM product. The card's RAMDAC was not as fast, and not all of the cards had a VESA feature connector.
    - The speakers shipped with the system were not the ones that they appeared to be in the ads. (I have forgotten the brand and model numbers so I'll make some up). The speakers in the ad looked like Brand Y 450s, but were actually brand Y 350s, where the 450s were a retail product and the 350s were an OEM product. I never heard the speakers, but callers would tell me that they hissed annoyingly unless they were playing something or were turned off.
    - The CD-ROM drive was advertised as a 6X but was slammed in the industry press for turning in performances on a par with 4X drives.

    This has been about four years ago.
  • by NMerriam ( 15122 ) <> on Wednesday December 06, 2000 @12:03PM (#577180) Homepage
    No kidding -- I'd say the worst, by FAR, is Sony.

    I had a guy show up at a presentation with a Sony laptop, and we had to make a change to his display settings and reboot for it to work right with the projector.

    His Pentium 3 800 mhz laptop with 128 megs of RAM took literally 7 minutes to boot, because Sony was auto-loading over a dozen different programs at boot time.

    Our VAIOs, while great machines, have software that I have no clue what it does. I can't just remove it because I know it's involved with all the sony doo-dads (like the video camera, the scroll wheel, etc) but there's no indication what software does what, or whether any of it is critical or just fluff.

    My first task with my latest Dell desktop: boot it once, make sure it works, Ghost the drive (just in case), immediately wipe the disk and rebuild it sensibly.


  • Quality generally takes time. Gen X-ers sitting around drinking expensive coffee whipping out Java code looks cool and exciting, but this is a distortion on the way the world works. Operating systems are rarely built my new college grads. It takes years of plodding and experience to do it right. (Obligatory Linus reference - although young, he stands on the shoulders of giants.)

    Take a look at the AS/400. It's not sexy. It's not cutting edge; in fact, it usually lags behind the latest and greatest. But it's scalable, it's been 64 bit for years, and it is highly regarded as rock solid. We have a structured environment for development. We stress quality early. We fix our bugs, not tell people to wait for the next release. Contrast this to the Microsoft way.

    You get what you pay for.
  • "Not until the consumers demand [quality] and get it from overseas will the reigning companies believe," he e-mailed me. "American computer and software companies are making too much money in the current environment to care."

    That pretty much sums everything up - all the other examples are just icing on the cake. The computer industry has no reason to change thier practice as long as the consumer is willing to shell out money for buggy code.

Today is the first day of the rest of your lossage.