To reveal or not to reveal software bugs

A couple of issues back I raised the question of the computer industry’s soft underbelly. I cited a few of the dirty secrets industry insiders know but which are hidden from the hoi polloi (for example, the fact that computing is hard and the industry markets a different story), but wondered what others thought.

So I posed the question to a private list I subscribe to and one of the members, Joe Mahoney, replied: “I was once at a board meeting at a famous company where an illustrious billionaire suggested the company take the moral high ground in the ‘software has bugs’ issue by publishing the complete bug list for a famous software product. I quickly put in a call to a colleague and a short time later [he delivered] an OED-sized tome … the open/deferred bug list for the product, which I shared with the board. There was silence as the message sank in. The message being (to paraphrase the goldfish in the Cat in the Hat) ‘This list is so big / And so deep and so tall, / there is no way to spin it. / There is no way at all.’ End of discussion.”

Whether you are an IT industry veteran with decades at the digital coal face or a newbie consumer wandering around lost in the PC department at Fry’s, this underlines one thing we all know about software: It is full of bugs and unreliable. One minute everything on your computer is working great, and the next, you have a pile of bits lying on the carpet.

What does this mean? It means two things: The first is that, until we try the software we have, we have no idea whether it will actually work on our computer, and even when it does, we still need to drive it for a while to make sure it works properly. Second, once the application is running in what we hope is the correct manner, we have no idea when it will stop working.

Curiously we all act as if failure won’t happen and most likely won’t do so catastrophically. To misquote Humphrey Bogart: “Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and possibly for the rest of your life, unless you re-install.”

I must digress for a moment for a trivia break: Did you know that Bogie was a world-class chess player? Apparently before he became a star, Bogart hustled strangers in chess parlours in New York’s Times Square playing five-minute chess for 50 cents a game. Who knew?

Anyway, what I find interesting is that we all accept the fragility of applications as just being how things are. We all complain to each other about the problem, but the software industry has effectively desensitized us to the issue so our complaints are more along the lines of whining. It would be like complaining about the tires on our cars going flat every 10 miles but never getting enough ire built up to do anything about it.

Is that our problem? A lack of ire? Have we all become so enamoured with digital this and wired that that we are willing to overlook the fact that the software industry has created a tremendous amount of crappy code? Buggy code that was poorly architected from Square 1, that has lost its original developers and been handed over to maintenance engineers who are never given enough time to really fix bugs? Is this what will drive the demand for open source?

That, my friends, is a crucial part of what I think the soft underbelly of the software industry looks like. Maybe there are a few companies out there that will make their software bug lists public, but will this ever become the norm? Probably not today, probably not tomorrow and probably never.