The U.S. Software Industry and Software Quality: Another Detroit in the Making?
"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 - such as the wide-open availability of the underlying source code, the ongoing testing of code in real-world settings, the frequent release cycles - 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 shallow."
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 - 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. economy.
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 - 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 - 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 - and you take a huge slice of the economy with you. But who cares? Your kids and grandkids will pay, not you.