Bugs Everywhere

As a computer user, you have at least occasionally had problems, where the computer or the programs running on it do not function as claimed. That is, bugs. Bugs cause problems ranging from unobserved to minor inconveniences to total failures. Programs crash, compromise security, fail to print a page properly, produce incorrect results, etc.

Not all problems are bugs. That a product does not work as you wish or has any number of limitations or is just plain lousy does not make it buggy. Yet by any definition web browsers, word processors, enterprise applications, databases and online services have them.

When I used to manage software products, one of the rules of engagement vis-a-vis the market was to strongly discourage talking about bugs or using the term. Even in an era of permissive and sometimes vulgar language, saying the “B-word” was taboo. This didn’t work then and certainly won’t work now. We have long since passed the era of plausible deniability.

Suppliers know about some bugs when they ship a product, others are latent and are discovered later. This is not because suppliers are necessarily stupid or lazy. The number of combinations of conditions, which it would take to reveal bugs, is astronomical, so it is impossible to test them all. Moreover there is no practical method of producing commercial software, which precludes bugs. Though we can try to avoid the colossal failure “show-stoppers,” which render the product unsafe or unusable.

This used to be thought of a problem for software developers, technologists, and in general for the other guy. No more. Software is an integral part of an ever increasing array of products – The phone and the network it depends on, the water saving washer and the electric gird which powers it, the tarter removing power toothbrush, medical devices, and even toasters.

Emblematic of this problem is Toyota and the reports of sudden acceleration in some of its vehicles. A contemporary automobile has scores of microprocessors and millions of lines of software (some estimates are as high as 100 million) controlling everything from fuel air mixture to skid recovery. It is not certain what causes sudden acceleration. What is virtually certain is that Toyota’s software and that of every other auto manufacturer contains bugs.

Toyota has so far denied that software or the electronics by it are at fault, but others are not convinced. No less a presence than Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak opined that despite Toyota’s assertions their problem “is software. It’s not a bad accelerator pedal. It’s very scary, but luckily for me, I can hit the brakes.”

Also unconvinced are NASA and the National Science Foundation, which are reported to be conducting studies on problems with automobile electronics and software

What does this mean for marketers? In good times, we try to tell good stories enlightening the market about good products. As software and its attendant bugs touch more and more of our products, we’ll need to have some stories debugged.