The U.S. Software Industry and Software Quality: Another Detroit in the Making?

Will software makers follow the U.S. auto industry of old down the road of glitzware?

"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.

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 - 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.



Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.


Jim Nddie's picture

If we talk about designing Absolute Source are a full service Orange County Web design, online marketing and web development company. They integrated line of services extends well beyond web design. Since 2001, Absolute Source and its subsidiaries has strategically designed and implemented each project to build our client’s customer base and increase revenues.

Car Softwares

Chris.john's picture

Now they must have to work on Automobiles industry as well if they want to capture the whole market as the Automobiles are having completely computerized functions and also electric cars are available with computer generated functions ford motors

I also see it. Decades ago,

Ninna's picture

I also see it. Decades ago, there were only few major car manufacturers who possessed over two third of the market. Now things change a lot. Now they really have to apply continuous improvement/innovation is market share is to be retained.

Auto Insurance

That's why a little

allan's picture

That's why a little competition is so good for the clients sake. It's the same for the auto insurance industry, as well as the software industry. The stronger the competition the better for the clients, they are more likely to get better quality services and products. It's unbelievable how the auto makers had been so irresponsible in the past, they were too greedy to realize their own families were put in danger...

Software for cars are now

willis's picture

Software for cars are now being high in demand, as more busy people want to take it easy when managing their vehicles. I personally use the AndiCar software for car manager. it's great so far ;)

Will - Fox Rent A Car

And how is the US Software Industry now?

J. Novak Zaballa's picture

As a technician, I really like Linux and I think it is a solid operating system and an excelent choice for a lot of needings. But Mr. Gates still the richest man on the earth, even now in tough times, why?

I don't think the people have been simply fool and thats would be the reason why they bought those kind of software, I am sure they would leave windows and pick easy to use reliable free software, if something like that exists. But it seems like only us, some of the lovers of "the computer science", we think that linux is in fact "THE" alternative, but sadly, common people does not, and I believe they don't have to.

Could be ours the guilt?, sorry, I am giving myself too much credit, I mean, IMHO, the responsibles for making windows the first choice of common users, are the developers of free software, particulary Linux, because, while Mr. Gates and his team are focused on the satisfaction of the expectatives of common people, some computer science lovers are focused on satisfying our selves. The whole concept is "quality", it is not precisely the satisfaction of the final custumer?

The hope is that some IT Business already are visualizing Linux as probably the only alternative to compete in the industry and they are starting to support Linux and the whole aim of free software and open source.

Whereas it's true that, year to year fewer students are choosing engineering as a career in US, it is mainly because of the globalization of the job market, but that issue is not so simple and I am not sure if I want to write about it.

Novak Zaballa
SIESIS SRL - Bolivia

FOSS too has quality issues that are not clearly addressed

Anonymous's picture

Thats all very good and interesting reading, but FOSS/Linux has just as many problems as you claim commercial software has.

You say commercial software are trying to change the laws, so is FOSS but they want the laws chanced so they can steal IP and patents.

Quality of software, Hmm, its clear most FOSS applications look rought and fury around the edges, from the kernel to applications like open office.

Ubuntu, 47,000 bugs on its bug site !!! thats not quality, how many lines of code is required for fit those 47,000 bugs in.

the GPL, GLARING WARNING, NO WARRANTIE on this code, DO NOT TRUST IT, we take no responsibility whatsoever if this code should melt your computer and set your house on fire.

The one main issue with commercial software is just that, it has to reach a level of quality and finish for it to be a commercial success.

As much as the FOSS community hate to believe it, this has been acheive with huge success by MS. Their quality is certainly good enough and its clear that the vast majority of clients (users) see that.

They understant the "maintenance halo" concept of FOSS, and like the car industry, if you want to make your money repairing cars, dont make them to reliable in the first place.

same with software, if you want your software to make you money by a "maintenance halo" then make your code buggy enough and complex enough that you get maintenance contracts to support it.

IE, no commercial incentive to create a quality product, and lots of incentive to create and less than A1 (ISO9001) quality product.

Does FOSS have a QA system in place, whats it's quality statement, whats its CONC value.
How is FOSS's QA system managed, and by who ?

Do FOSS have regular quality Assurance meetings to guage the success of their work,

DO they enforce quality ? hold up releases because of quality issues, or do they release distro's with 47,000 registered bugs.

IF you were designing a bridge or a jet aircraft your number of bugs would be basically ZERO, or you may just end up in prison.

Why is it that software industry seems to think programming is not an engineering disipline ?