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Software Quality

This article by Peter Bowditch appeared in the November 2001 edition of the Australian Computer Society's NSW Branch Newsletter

Newsletter November 2001Unfortunately, we have become accustomed to using buggy software. Actually, we should be honest and call it defective software. I've heard all the stories about how hard it is to write software and how you can't test it and so on. I will admit that it is impossible to test all the possible interactions with other software and with all the pieces of hardware that can be inserted into or attached to computers. Nobody expects perfection, but we want things to work. My complaint here, however, is not about software that crashes or breaks, but about software that appears to work perfectly well until an upgrade is applied, at which time things go backwards. I am not just talking about major upgrades where the new version may be effectively a new product, but the dot revisions that come along to fix errors or to tidy things up.

A big-selling accounting package in Australia has a nice little quirk when you install an update (which you seem to have to do - and pay for - quite often). Unlike most Windows programs which put themselves somewhere in "Program Files", this thing installs itself in the root directory of the C: drive in a folder named after the product and version number. A new folder is created for each new version, leaving the old one behind. The first time you run a new version, it asks whether you want to upgrade the data files as well (why wouldn't you?) and creates a new, updated database in the new folder leaving the old data in place. So far, so good. But! What if you are sharing the data on a network? The second person updates the software, gets asked if they want to update the data, it gets copied from the server to their hard drive. The third person ... - well, you get the picture. Everything goes nicely until someone decides to do a bank reconciliation and then you find that everyone has been using different copies of the database for the last few weeks.

The software product that most of my business is based on has been mercifully free of upgrades for the last two years. This situation is accidental and happened because the product was sold to another company, and the new owners have concentrated on absorbing the product and people and rearranging distribution. (The announcement of the sale came on the same day as the official launch of the new version!) There have actually been two minor upgrades - one to change the branding so that the start up splash screen shows the new owner's logo and one to introduce licence management and enforced registration. Coincidentally, one of these upgrades killed the tool tips, so instead of little yellow boxes near the cursor saying what toolbar icons mean, the words appear on the status bar just above the Start button. Was this on anyone's wish list? Did anyone ask for it? Can the programmers tell us why it happened? No, no, and no, as it happens.

I have a program which produces Flash animations. One of the problems with Flash is that the files can be quite large, so I was pleased to read that the new version of the program reduced the size of the generated Flash files by "up to 40%". I tried it on an animation which was 81K bytes, which is approaching the limits of usability for the web. The new version gave a file that was 111K. The same people offered me a trial version of a program which can convert animated GIF files to Flash. (No, I don't know why anyone would want to do this.) The first attempt turned a GIF file of 11K into a Flash file of 294K. This program can also optimise GIF files and make them smaller. It added 2K to the 11K, said "Wow!" and asked me if I wanted to save it. No, thank you.

Everyone is concerned about viruses and worms. A big security hole is that worms can use your email client program to mail copies of themselves to your friends and acquaintances. Microsoft fixed the problem with Outlook by issuing an update called the Email Security Patch. This causes Outlook to ask for permission from the operator if any other program tries to use Outlook to send an email message. A very nice idea until you try to use ACT! To send a mail merge using Outlook to 200 recipients, because then you get asked 200 times for permission to proceed. You might say that this is because the two pieces of software come from different suppliers, but it seems that there are Chinese walls inside Microsoft because the same thing happens if you try to use Word to merge to email. To fix the problem, you uninstall Office 2000 completely and then reinstall it and reinstall all the patches except the security one. Except that Microsoft have incorporated the security patch into Service Release 2 of Office 2000 and it is no longer optional. If anyone from Microsoft wants to comment on why this is so, they might also like to explain why it takes longer to install Office 2000 than it does to install Windows 2000. Just what is it doing while all those progress bars move so slowly across the screen?

These are just recent examples of the problem from my own experience (and that of my clients) and are not meant to be criticisms of specific software companies or a suggestion that everyone else gets it right. All software companies seem to be guilty of producing the occasional downgrade just as they all seem capable of producing useful upgrades. Upgrades and new versions are a fact of life as hardware capabilities change and people work out how to do things that could not be done before or react to changing business environments. Each new version of the major anti-virus software products does a better job of protection than previous efforts, updates to graphics programs take advantage of progress in hardware capabilities, accounting programs (sometimes) reflect changes in taxation rules and laws, operating systems get better and more usable with each release (don't write in about Windows Millennium Edition - I know!) and so on. I don't object to updates, and I usually don't even mind paying for them. All I ask is that new versions don't take away what I had before, make it harder to use the products, introduce new and unexpected problems, or make me replace everything else as well.

Copyright 1998- Peter Bowditch

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