• Is Software Quality Getting Worse?

    April 29th, 2006

    On Wednesday morning, I learned about a new release of the world-famous peer-to-peer telephony application, Skype, and promptly downloaded a copy. The key new feature was native support for Intel-based Macs. Without thinking about it, I launched the application, saw it bounce in the Dock a time or two and then it stopped dead. I tried it on my Power Mac G5 and an iMac with Intel-inside. Same symptoms, and, within hours, it had been withdrawn.

    You will probably never learn just what went wrong, but you wonder whether anyone, anywhere, could get that failed application to run and how it possibly passed quality control testing. Surely it would have been obvious from the get-go that something was wrong. Now it may be a simple matter to fix, and the new version will be out shortly, perhaps by the time you read this commentary. I also wonder whether the employees responsible for what may have been an innocent error will be appropriately chastised.

    Of course, you don’t pay for Skype, unless you buy buckets of minutes to call people outside of the network, so what you may have lost is just some convenience. The previous version was quickly restored, and all should be well in the world, except for the price of gas. But that’s something way beyond the province of this column.

    Alas, this is nothing unusual in this climate of fatter, feature-packed software. Companies seem so busy giving you what they say you want, that they forget about basics, such as making sure everything works well together. To be sure, the Skype division of eBay is just one of many, and the major software companies are among the chronic offenders.

    I’m sure you might regard Microsoft as number one with a bullet when it comes to bloated, bug-ridden products, but Apple Computer often has to try a few times to get things right. Take Tiger. Mac OS 10.4 hit the starting gate faster than many expected, and it seems obvious, as you ponder the possibilities of 10.4.6, that it should have cooked in the testing labs just a few weeks longer. Key new features, such as improved connectivity to corporate networks, didn’t quite work as advertised. Now maybe it was, to some extent anyway, the fault of third parties that had to adapt their software to changes inside Tiger. But it clearly caused some serious disruptions.

    Today, Tiger is far more stable, and has realized its true potential for most of you. But some are still reporting serious problems, which are still being cataloged on MacFixIt. Will it take a 10.4.7 or a 10.4.8 to set things right? Understand that I have no complaints to voice. Things seem to work properly for me in just about every respect. Sure, I can see where improvements can be made, but that’s a different matter entirely. On the other hand, many others see things differently.

    Last fall, when Apple made a big splash with Aperture, an application designed for professional photographers, reviewers weren’t quite so pleased with the results. Serious bugs in handling Raw images and the lack of key features vexed some. The newly-released version 1.1, which also adds Universal support, supposedly addressed many of the performance and feature complaints. Time will tell whether things are in good order now, or whether it will take a few more updates to reach its potential. There is also a rumor that Apple has reassigned Aperture’s development team, which raises the specter that they might be pulling the plug in the near term. Or maybe they weren’t satisfied with the way things were going, and decided a little shake-up with some new personnel would help in the repair process.

    Of course, the prevailing warning over the years has it that you should never buy the initial release of anything. Wait for the point-one version before you test the waters. In the larger scheme of things, you have to wonder how some products are rushed to market long before they are ready. No doubt it’s the eternal battle between marketers and developers. A company may earn income from advance orders, but eventually something has to ship. I can see where even the most dedicated members of a programming team are forced to get something out the door, with the promise that “we’ll fix those problems later in an update.”

    No problem, except for the people impacted by the bugs in that initial release. Must it always be that way?

    If you are contemplating the purchase of a MacIntel in the near future, you’ll be pleased to know that they seem to be pretty solid. There were some reports of problems with early deliveries of the MacBook Pro, which have largely been addressed by Apple. But the demand has only risen for key Universal applications. Adobe Photoshop is a main example. The next upgrade now isn’t due until the first half of next year. I know the pressure is on to get it out the door as quickly as possible, and I wouldn’t be surprised of Steve Jobs has been applying heavy-handed pressure to move things along.

    But, in light of the way things usually work, I’d rather see Adobe take a little extra time to complete its huge task properly. The creative people who depend on applications such as Photoshop to earn a living deserve the best.

    I also hope that now that Apple has expanded the time between operating systems, it’ll try harder to make Leopard as solid as possible before you and I become their unpaid beta testers.

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