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January 2004

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Saving the US Software Industry

by Glen Emerson Morris

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In May of 2002, the Department of Commerce issued a report that estimated the annual dollar amount lost due to software bugs to be about $59.5 billion dollars. (Note: the complete report "The Economic Impacts of Inadequate Infrastructure for Software Testing" is included in the Advertising & Marketing Review Data CD.)

The DOC report only confirmed what most businesses knew already. The software they depend on for development, production, marketing and support of their products and services is frequently loaded with bugs that make using the software far more expensive and unreliable than it should be.

The key conclusion of the DOC report is that things don't have to be this way. There are things that can be done to improve the software quality crisis, but it will take resolute action by the US business community to cause the needed changes to happen. Fortunately, most of the changes needed are both obvious, and common in other industries.

One of the key requirements for saving the US software industry is making software companies accountable for the economic losses their software errors cause. A common comment about Microsoft is that the company would have been sued out of existence if it were subject to the same product-liability as car manufacturers.

In contrast to the car industry, US software is usually sold "as is," and with a license that precludes the buyer from seeking any legal remedy from the software developer for any reason. Some software is even sold with the license only readable after the package is opened, and with the condition that the buyer has agreed to the license by opening the package. This effectively gives the buyer no chance to reject the license conditions. It will take national legislation to change this, but such legislation would be possible if enough US businesses complain to their representatives in Washington.

Another element for saving the US software industry is reducing the number of hours engineers are forced to work. Software developers should have limited work hours much the same way as commercial airline pilots have. Commercial airline pilots are limited by FAA regulations to flying only 1200 hours a year because beyond that they simply cannot track the variables needed to fly safely. Multitasking is one of the first mental facilities to go when a person becomes mentally fatigued, and software engineers must consider an array of implications when developing code. The more tired engineers are the more mistakes they make, especially in area of so called "integration" bugs, or how their code interacts with other code modules or applications.

Currently, the US software industry offers some of the worst working conditions in the United States. Six day weeks for programmers and quality assurance engineers are common, and seven day work weeks are not uncommon. The software development company Micrografx, now out of business, worked its employees seven days a week, and actually sent several employees to a psychiatrist for complaining about not having had a day off in months.

Another key element in saving the US software industry is to limit the number of foreign workers brought into the US to work at US software companies. While offering a sort term advantage of keeping development costs down, the long term consequence is that US software companies have been training engineers who will return home to their native countries and work for foreign competition. This is already happening to some degree.

In addition, as the Department of Commerce report suggested, there should be national standards for quality by which every commercial software product is rated. Such standards are common in other industries. Car manufacturers are required to state how many miles per gallon their cars will get. The oil industry is required to state the octane ratings of the gasoline they sell. Even light bulbs are sold with packaging indicating the number of hours the bulb is expected to last. Software buyers should be informed how reliable software is, with such metrics as the estimated average time between software crashes.

Ironically, it doesn't cost a great deal more to test software properly before its marketed. In a few years, US software developers will be facing serious competition from developers in India. We're likely to see a repeat of the time when Japanese car manufacturers marketed cars in America that were much more reliable than their American competition and won a huge share of the market as a result.

It would be more than ironic if the country that invented the personal computer became dependent on foreign software developers for the software it needed. It would be damaging to the economy, and could even be a threat to national security, particularly if the US became dependent on software developed in a country we might be at war with someday, like China.

If the US is to maintain its position as the world's leader in software development, it must act soon. There still is a window of opportunity, as demonstrated by the recent cancellation of Dell's outsourcing of customer support to India. Dell's customers complained that the Indian customer support representatives simply didn't offer much help. The reps were dependent on reading canned answers to fit questions they typed into their computer. Much of the time, that wasn't good enough.

For the time being, current economic conditions have limited the financial contributions US software manufacturers can send to Washington. With the US software industry's financial clout at an all time low, this is the perfect time to lobby for the new laws needed to protect American businesses from low quality software, and to save the US software industry from itself. We may not have a chance to do either if we fail to act.

Glen Emerson Morris has worked as a technology consultant for Network Associates, Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius, and is the developer of the Advertising & Marketing Review Data CD.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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