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?
Now: Featuritus - and Bugs Galore

Today's commercial software packages have much in common with shoddy U.S. automobiles of the 1950s and 1960s, according to the software industry's critics. It's basically the same formula: put out shoddy products, and use high-pressure marketing to keep consumers focused on new software versions that offer glitzy new features. In reality, you're hoodwinking people into buying the same defective product over and over again, but hey - you make tons of money. And who cares about quality, anyway? Sure, industry executives concede, we could reduce the number of bugs in our products, they say, but only by raising the price of our products by 50 percent or more - and consumers won't stand for it. Quality? We'll give you "good enough" quality, and that's all you're going to get.

It's incredibly cavalier of these companies to say that quality isn't needed in products such as word processors, spreadsheet programs and the rest. People have lost jobs, flunked classes, and contemplated jumping off bridges after software glitches destroyed work that was critical to them. And these very same products are finding their way into virtually every aspect of life, including situations in which human life and limb could very well be at stake if the e-mail doesn't get through. Shoddy, bug-ridden software isn't safe to use under any condition, and these companies know it. My evidence? Instead of improving their products, commercial software vendors are busily trying to rewrite U.S. and international law to shield themselves from the consequences of their corporate negligence. In the U.S., Microsoft has taken the lead in pushing for the passage of UCITA, a state-level legislative act that has been opposed by every consumer rights organization that has ever examined the issue, as well as by 23 U.S. Attorneys General and computing professional organizations, who correctly describe the legislation as a major setback not only for consumers, but also for public safety.

Sounds like the Detroit game all over again, doesn't it? But wait: there's more. Inspired by Demming's writings, software development expert Watts Humphrey - an ex-IBM executive who is now affiliated with Carnegie-Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute (SEI) - developed a version of Demming's work for the software industry. And guess what? U.S. software vendors aren't listening to Humphrey. One reason they're not listening is that they're too busy jeering Humphrey and ridiculing his work, which is exactly what U.S. auto-industry executives did to Demming in the 1950s. (Demming eventually gave up and moved to Japan.)

What's Humphrey saying? It's simple: software companies can make high-quality products, and what's more, doing so isn't expensive. Humphrey's work has evolved into the Capability Maturity Model (CMM), which shows software developers how to build quality in from the get-go. It also provides a way of ranking a company's commitment to quality. At Level 1, companies aren't doing much of anything about quality. At Level 5, they're up to the Toyota level: they're building quality consciousness into everything they do, and they're constantly refining and improving their processes.

What's more, CMM works. Using CMM-like methods, telecommunications giant US West Technologies was able to reduce service outages by 79 percent, slice billing costs by $30 million, and reduce service order errors by 50 percent. There's an upfront investment required, to be sure, but it pays off in the long run. In 1990, the cost of ensuring quality at Raytheon Electronics Systems ate up nearly two-thirds of all software development costs. Thanks to CMM, Raytheon is putting out even better software, but the cost of assuring this quality has fallen below 10 percent of software development budgets. And what about bugs? Based in Chennai, India, a contract software developer called Advanced Information Services (IAS) - one of the few CMM Level 5 companies in existence - is cranking out code with only 0.05 defects per thousand lines of code. That's better than the space shuttle's software. This level of achievement isn't putting IAS out of business - far from it: their profits have doubled. On average, companies that adopt CMM realize a fivefold return on their investment.

Who's listening to Humphrey? CMM critics affiliated with Microsoft charge that CMM creates an unwieldy bureaucracy that forestalls the kind of brilliant innovation that's leading the software industry. Give me a break! If Microsoft supposedly exemplifies the type of organization that would be "paralyzed" by CMM to the point that it couldn't innovate, we might all be much better off. As near as I can tell, the lion's share of Microsoft products that could be termed "innovative" in some sense - MS-DOS, Windows, FrontPage and others - either originated outside the company, were based on ideas that were developed outside the company, or were acquired by purchasing an outside company. Microsoft's innovations seem limited to figuring out new ways of introducing dysfunctional extensions to prevailing standards for no other reason than the firm's desire to put its competitors out of business.

So who is listening? As of this writing, only 19 software companies are certified at Level 5, and 13 of them are in India. That's right: India. If you think India is a backward country that couldn't possibly compete in the high-tech sweepstakes, you'd better think again, because Indian software companies are putting out some of the best software in the world. Near Bangalore, India, a CMM-driven, Level 5 shop is turning out software with 0.03 defects per thousand lines of code. Right now in India, there's a replay of exactly the same process that energized the Japanese automobile industry thirty years ago. They see the opportunity. They have the talent. They know they can create world-class software. They're doing it right now.

When asked whether Indian software firms pose a threat to their near stranglehold on the consumer software market, U.S. software executives laugh. They point out that these silly foreign companies don't know anything about style or marketing; there's no way they could make it in the U.S. market. Now where have we heard that before?



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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 ?