I’m not computer literate!

How many times have you heard someone apologize for not being computer literate?  I guess i’m getting to a point where this just becomes annoying.  No one apologizes for being a bad driver or not being able to use the new array of TV-side appliances like the Tivo, the VHS, the DVD, the cable box…it’s not that i’m irritated at at the person apologizing.  As a software developer i’m more irritated with my own industry.

 In no other industry can you get away with producing such a poor quality product and expecting the user to just live with it.  Computers and the software that makes them work are general purpose appliances.  An appliance is supposed to perform a function and otherwise be innocuous.  Of course, it is a fair argument that computers perform a more complicated function requiring more training and attention from the user but thats not really to the point that i’m trying to make.  A heavy equipment operator has to learn the functions of his equipment but doesn’t usually have to know the inner workings when it comes to repairing a malfunction. 

Software is rushed out the door by most companies so quickly that crashes are something most users have come to expect and tolerate.  We actually don’t mind it…it’s software!  It just does that!  It’s gotten so bad that companies will actually charge you to help you with the bugs in their own software.

Several months ago I was working with a very high-end bit of software, Microsoft SQL Server.  This was the standard edition which isn’t as costly as Enterprise edition but still fairly pricey.  The situation was that SQL Server had crashed with an internal exception during normal operation.  Our first assumption was to assume a system fault of some sort.  After some investigation, we found that this was a known bug in SQL Server but we were unable to find a work around.  We called Microsoft and paid several hundred dollars for premium support so we could actually speak with an engineer to find a solution.  After several hours we finally spoke with an engineer and were informed that this was indeed a problem with this version of SQL Server and that no patch would be issued but if we really needed a fix, we could upgrade to Enterprise edition at a cost of $20k per processor.  We had four processors in this particular machine bringing the cost of a fix to $80k…plus the cost of the support call.

 To compare this to the auto industry, this is the equivalent of your new car simply shutting off while driving down the freeway.  It simply wouldn’t be tolerated.  Oh by the way, if you don’t want your car to shut off you can buy the more expensive luxury model.

So my question for all of you is this?  Why is the software and computer industry different?  I realize that a higher standard of quality would cause  slow innovation but maybe Moore’s law is being fulfilled at the expense of the market the products are built to serve.

Also, if you have any stories of buggy software and responses by the software’s developer, I would love to have you post a comment telling us about it.


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