Michael Gurstein on Tue, 23 May 2000 19:34:49 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Fw: Another Detroit in the Making?

----- Original Message -----
From: Toby Donaldson <donaldson@techbc.ca>
Sent: Monday, May 22, 2000 9:24 PM
Subject: Another Detroit in the Making?

 The U.S. Software Industry and Software Quality: Another Detroit in the
 by Bryan Pfaffenberger <bp@virginia.edu>
 Will software makers follow the U.S. auto industry of old down the road of

 "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 that I've ever heard....
 And so, in so sense, is [software] stability a reason to move to a new
 version. It's never a reason. You won't get a single person to say they'd
 buy a new version because of bugs."

 --Bill Gates, CEO of Microsoft Corporation, in an interview with reporter
 Klaus Brunnstein (Focus, November 1995)

 Do computer users care about quality? Linux advocates hope so, because it's
 unquestionably the case that open-source development methods are capable of
 producing some very fine software indeed. As open-source guru Eric Raymond
 points out, the nature of open-source development o such as the wide-open
 availability of the underlying source code, the ongoing testing of code in
 real-world settings, the frequent release cycles o can produce code that's
 remarkably free from programming errors. The sheer number of developers
 helps, too; as Linus Torvalds puts it, "With enough eyeballs, all bugs are

 To be sure, not every program developed with open-source methods is as
 beautifully crafted as the Linux kernel, but there's no disputing the fact
 that open-source development can indeed produce software of exceptional
 quality. If quality matters, Linux ought to have an edge over its commercial
 competitors. According to one estimate by a Microsoft internal (see Minasi
 2000:255), the firm's products typically contain an average of 14 to 17
 errors per 1,000 lines of code o a level of quality that can be described as
 mediocre. But people keep buying Microsoft products. Vendor executives,
 Microsoft's among them, look at their profits and ask why they should bother
 improving their firms' software. Sure, they admit, it's possible to produce
 software of space-shuttle quality, but doing so is very expensive. Maybe
 that level of quality is needed in life-critical systems, such as medical
 software, but who needs a quality word processor? Consumers don't care, they
 conclude, and so they keep putting out products that are "good enough".

 They're wrong. Dead wrong. Consumers have been putting up with bug-ridden
 software for one simple reason: They don't realize there is an alternative.
 And once they find out, commercial software vendors are going to lose a big
 slice of their business. Where's my evidence for this claim? History. I'm
 sure you've heard the famous Santayana quote: "Those who do not remember the
 past are condemned to repeat it." (No, that's not a typo; it's Santayana the
 philosopher, not Santana the guitarist.) If you're looking for an example,
 I've got a doozy for you. According to Mark Minasi, author of a very fine
 book entitled The Software Conspiracy (McGraw-Hill, 2000), the U.S.
 commercial software industry is making exactly the same mistake that U.S.
 auto makers once made, and the results could prove catastrophic to the U.S.

 Then: Fins and Features (But Underneath, It's Junk)
 Flash back to the 1950s, and take a look at the average new car produced by
 one of Detroit's "Big Three" auto makers (GM, Ford, and Chrysler). You'd see
 lots of cool features: big, gutsy V-8 engines, flashy chrome bumpers, and
 (in 1957, anyway) fins that made the cars look like low-flying rockets.

 If you owned one of these monsters, though, you'd discover another,
 less-appealing characteristic: shoddiness. The cars were riddled with
 defects and needed frequent repairs. They weren't safe, either, and they
 were murder on the environment. Instead of improving their products and
 making them safer and less polluting, the Big Three auto makers went to work
 on the politicians. They did everything they could to ward off legislation
 to give consumers protections against lemons. They opposed air bags. They
 tried to fight off pollution standards. In today's markedly more corrupt
 political environment, they probably would have succeeded.

 They also went to work on consumers. Money that could have gone into
 improving their products, as well as making them safer and less polluting,
 went into advertising and marketing instead. The goal? Get consumers back
 into the showroom every two or three years to buy a new car with new,
 up-to-date styling. Under the hood, of course, they got the same old junk.

 Call it shortsightedness, if you'd like, or just plain greed, but the Big
 Three auto makers couldn't see a financial incentive for improving their
 products. So they didn't. They knew the cars were junk. They knew they were
 unsafe. Sure, every once in a while, they had little twinges of conscience o
 such as when an auto executive's kid was killed in a fiery crash, one that
 could been prevented had the company paid more attention to safety. They
 felt terrible for a few days. (You can read the whole, sick story in J.
 Patrick Wright's On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors, published in
 1979.) But all such concerns were sacrificed to the Bottom Line. When
 challenged to defend their low-quality cars, the auto makers complained that
 the cost of building quality automobiles was simply too high; it could be
 done, but you'd pay at least half again as much for that shiny new Chevy.
 Consumers were content with the low quality/low price tradeoff, the auto
 makers believed. Consumers are buying the cars, they pointed out. The auto
 makers were raking in fabulous profits, and making a fantastic contribution
 to the economy.

 In fact, consumers weren't content with the cars (or the dealers, but that's
 another story). Still, complaining didn't get them anywhere, and for one
 simple reason: there wasn't any competition. If U.S. cars were shoddy, they
 looked like the space shuttle next to British cars, which (lamentably)
 lacked the capital to do anything about their endemic quality problems.
 Sure, there were some little Japanese companies that were making
 funny-looking, inexpensive cars, but these companies weren't a threat to
 Detroit, the auto makers believed. Japanese car makers didn't know anything
 about marketing and style, and that's what sells cars in the U.S.

 You probably know the rest of the story. For years, U.S. industrial quality
 guru W. Edwards Deming tried to convince Detroit that it was possible to
 make high-quality products, and in addition, it's not much more expensive to
 do so, as long as you design the quality into the product at the beginning
 of production instead of trying to fix the problems at the end. But
 Demming's words fell on deaf ears o except in Japan.

 Japanese car makers took Demming's teachings to heart, and they started
 making some exceptionally fine automobiles. What's more, they were cheap.
 The result? Japanese auto makers grabbed nearly a third of the U.S. market
 and most of the international market. As a result, thanks to mounting
 Japanese automobile exports and the collapse of the U.S. auto industry
 overseas, the U.S. was plunged into the ranks of the world's debtor nations.

 Detroit's story should be clearly understood by everyone who wishes to grasp
 the significance of shortsighted, bottom-line thinking in corporations
 besotted by too much testosterone. Sure, you make money. In reality, though,
 you're doing so only by mortgaging your country's future. You're pushing for
 laws that, if passed, would have rolled consumer and environmental
 protection back to the Dark Ages. You're creating lasting ill will in a
 market that despises your products, and looks desperately for an
 alternative. And if you fail to keep your competitors out of the market, you
 go down o and you take a huge slice of the economy with you. But who cares?
 Your kids and grandkids will pay, not you.

 Now: Featuritus o and Bugs Galore
 Today's commercial software packages have much in common with shoddy U.S.
 automobiles of the 1950s and 1960s, according to the software industry's
 critics. It's basically the same formula: put out shoddy products, and use
 high-pressure marketing to keep consumers focused on new software versions
 that offer glitzy new features. In reality, you're hoodwinking people into
 buying the same defective product over and over again, but hey o you make
 tons of money. And who cares about quality, anyway? Sure, industry
 executives concede, we could reduce the number of bugs in our products, they
 say, but only by raising the price of our products by 50 percent or more o
 and consumers won't stand for it. Quality? We'll give you "good enough"
 quality, and that's all you're going to get.

 It's incredibly cavalier of these companies to say that quality isn't needed
 in products such as word processors, spreadsheet programs and the rest.
 People have lost jobs, flunked classes, and contemplated jumping off bridges
 after software glitches destroyed work that was critical to them. And these
 very same products are finding their way into virtually every aspect of
 life, including situations in which human life and limb could very well be
 at stake if the e-mail doesn't get through. Shoddy, bug-ridden software
 isn't safe to use under any condition, and these companies know it. My
 evidence? Instead of improving their products, commercial software vendors
 are busily trying to rewrite U.S. and international law to shield themselves
 from the consequences of their corporate negligence. In the U.S., Microsoft
 has taken the lead in pushing for the passage of UCITA, a state-level
 legislative act that has been opposed by every consumer rights organization
 that has ever examined the issue, as well as by 23 U.S. Attorneys General
 and computing professional organizations, who correctly describe the
 legislation as a major setback not only for consumers, but also for public

 Sounds like the Detroit game all over again, doesn't it? But wait: there's
 more. Inspired by Demming's writings, software development expert Watts
 Humphrey o an ex-IBM executive who is now affiliated with Carnegie-Mellon
 University's Software Engineering Institute (SEI) o developed a version of
 Demming's work for the software industry. And guess what? U.S. software
 vendors aren't listening to Humphrey. One reason they're not listening is
 that they're too busy jeering Humphrey and ridiculing his work, which is
 exactly what U.S. auto-industry executives did to Demming in the 1950s.
 (Demming eventually gave up and moved to Japan.)

 What's Humphrey saying? It's simple: software companies can make
 high-quality products, and what's more, doing so isn't expensive.  Humphrey's
 work has evolved into the Capability Maturity Model (CMM), which shows
 software developers how to build quality in from the get-go. It also
 provides a way of ranking a company's commitment to quality. At Level 1,
 companies aren't doing much of anything about quality. At Level 5, they're
 up to the Toyota level: they're building quality consciousness into
 everything they do, and they're constantly refining and improving their

 What's more, CMM works. Using CMM-like methods, telecommunications giant US
 West Technologies was able to reduce service outages by 79 percent, slice
 billing costs by $30 million, and reduce service order errors by 50 percent.
 There's an upfront investment required, to be sure, but it pays off in the
 long run. In 1990, the cost of ensuring quality at Raytheon Electronics
 Systems ate up nearly two-thirds of all software development costs. Thanks
 to CMM, Raytheon is putting out even better software, but the cost of
 assuring this quality has fallen below 10 percent of software development
 budgets. And what about bugs? Based in Chennai, India, a contract software
 developer called Advanced Information Services (IAS) o one of the few CMM
 Level 5 companies in existence o is cranking out code with only 0.05 defects
 per thousand lines of code. That's better than the space shuttle's software.
 This level of achievement isn't putting IAS out of business o far from it:
 their profits have doubled. On average, companies that adopt CMM realize a
 fivefold return on their investment.

 Who's listening to Humphrey? CMM critics affiliated with Microsoft charge
 that CMM creates an unwieldy bureaucracy that forestalls the kind of
 brilliant innovation that's leading the software industry. Give me a break!
 If Microsoft supposedly exemplifies the type of organization that would be
 "paralyzed" by CMM to the point that it couldn't innovate, we might all be
 much better off. As near as I can tell, the lion's share of Microsoft
 products that could be termed "innovative" in some sense o MS-DOS, Windows,
 FrontPage and others o either originated outside the company, were based on
 ideas that were developed outside the company, or were acquired by
 purchasing an outside company. Microsoft's innovations seem limited to
 figuring out new ways of introducing dysfunctional extensions to prevailing
 standards for no other reason than the firm's desire to put its competitors
 out of business.

 So who is listening? As of this writing, only 19 software companies are
 certified at Level 5, and 13 of them are in India. That's right: India. If
 you think India is a backward country that couldn't possibly compete in the
 high-tech sweepstakes, you'd better think again, because Indian software
 companies are putting out some of the best software in the world. Near
 Bangalore, India, a CMM-driven, Level 5 shop is turning out software with
 0.03 defects per thousand lines of code. Right now in India, there's a
 replay of exactly the same process that energized the Japanese automobile
 industry thirty years ago. They see the opportunity. They have the talent.
 They know they can create world-class software. They're doing it right now.

 When asked whether Indian software firms pose a threat to their near
 stranglehold on the consumer software market, U.S. software executives
 laugh. They point out that these silly foreign companies don't know anything
 about style or marketing; there's no way they could make it in the U.S.
 market. Now where have we heard that before?

 What Can You Do?
 First, buy ten copies of Mark Minasi's exceptionally fine book, The Software
 Conspiracy: Why Software Companies Put Out Faulty Products, How They Can
 Hurt You, and What You Can Do About It (McGraw-Hill, 2000) and give a copy
 to everyone you know who's in a position to influence software purchasing
 decisions. Mail them a copy of this article, too. My major criticism of
 Mark's book is that he doesn't weave open-source software in general, and
 Linux in particular, into the picture. I believe Linux is exposing the need
 and the thirst for high-quality software, and that the high quality of Linux
 and other open-source programs is in large measure responsible for its rapid
 growth and acceptance.

 Second, get the word out about UCITA. Visit http://www.badsoftware.com and
 the Consumer Project on Technology home page (http://www.cptech.org). If
 you're in a U.S. state where UCITA next comes up for ratification, organize
 street protests, write letters to legislators, get the word out, and fight
 it! There's still time to defeat this monster, but we have got to get
 organized NOW!

 Third, join the battle to promote software engineering, high-quality
 software, and responsible behavior by software vendors. Read Watts
 Humphrey's comments on software quality at
 http://www.2bguide.com/docs/whsq.html and then visit the Software
 Engineering Institute (SEI) at Carnegie-Mellon University, with which
 Humphreys is affiliated.

 Fourth, convince any organization with which you are affiliated o your
 school, your company, the non-profit organizations where you volunteer o
 that purchasing commercial vendors' products is aiding and abetting a
 process that is exposing the public to unwarranted risk, generating
 legislation that is harmful to public welfare, and retarding the progress of
 technology. Show them Linux, help them install it, and invite them to
 consider what people are slowly but surely learning: you don't have to put
 up with shoddy software.


 Bryan Pfaffenberger is a professor in the new Media Studies program at the
 University of Virginia, where he will teach two courses next fall (Media
 Studies 317: Intellectual Property and Digital Media, and Media Studies 110:
 Information Technology and Digital Media). He lives in Charlottesville,

 Copyright 2000 Specialized Systems Consultants, Inc.
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