Perfection may not be possible, but software should be better than this.
My coffee maker has a sensor that detects whether the coffee holder is in place, the lid for the coffee holder is in place, the water reservoir filled and all the flaps and hatches closed. If it determines any one of these items is not in place, it refuses to automatically turn on in the morning to make the coffee before my alarm clock goes off.
The one thing this modern marvel won’t detect is whether I have remembered to put the coffeepot on the warmer, where it can catch the brewed coffee. That, of course, is the step I forget. And somehow the first sip of the day is not as special if it has been wrung out of a paper towel after being fried on the coffee warmer and spilled all over the kitchen counter.
Despite this glaring flaw, this is probably the best coffeepot I have ever owned, so I thought I would let the company that makes it know about this one problem. But like most everything we purchase today, the company that makes the coffeepot also produces a million other products. The only phone number connects me with a foreign call center and an operator who can only deal with issues on the list of scripted responses that come up on his computer screen. So it looks as if I will continue to accept imperfection when it comes to my early-morning coffee experiences.
Overall, manufacturers have done a good job of training us consumers to expect and accept imperfections in the products we purchase. When it comes to computer software, the problem is even worse. Software users are willing to put up with a lot of imperfections in the daily operation of their computers — from lost data and “blue screens of death” to printers that will only print after being reset between print jobs. I can only imagine the hundreds of hours of productive work time lost each year to various software bugs.
We have all come to expect software to not function perfectly and believe flawless software is impossible. But is that really so? When it comes to software that we will not tolerate flaws in — such as the software that runs our cell phones — software companies seem to get it right.
Computer journalist Mark Minasi said the average simple cell phone has more than 5 million lines of code and an average of only four or five bugs in the software (in The Software Conspiracy: Why Companies Put Out Faulty Software, How They Can Hurt You and What You Can Do About It).
Compare that to Microsoft’s Word 97 program, which also had 5 million lines of code. However, it had more than 214 known bugs when Microsoft stopped offering support and fixes for the product and told consumers to switch to Word 2000. For whatever reasons, we have different expectations for the quality of our cell phones versus our word processing software, and software makers base the quality of their products on those expectations.
While true software glitches are one thing, the way our computers function when they are doing what they are supposed to do also seems baffling. Just last week, I was in a hurry to get home and get ready for a trip out of town. After sending off the last e-mail, I hurriedly selected shutdown on my laptop and started packing. Only then did Windows declare it was going to install 12 different updates and that turning off the computer at this critical moment would cause all sorts of bad things to happen. I had to wait another 15 minutes to get out the door so that Windows could complete its business.
I just can’t imagine that no one who owned a laptop was at the Microsoft meeting where this “feature” was discussed and approved for inclusion in the operating system. You would think someone in the room might have mentioned it would be a bit inconvenient for those on the go to have to wait for updates to take place each time they shutdown.
Whether it is a coffee pot or a software program, I guess accepting imperfection in our products is all part of consumer society — we have to accept the lowest common denominator when it comes to quality. I just hope the next coffee pot I buy won’t be running Windows.
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Portions of this post were first printed in the Columbia Daily Tribune in an article by the author.