Taking Issue With Bugs In Software

(This column first appeared in the October 24, 1995 issue of PC Graphics Report)

Among the many hats I still wear, even after departing Panacea, is the one of Chairman of the New Hampshire Software President’s Forum, a monthly dinner gathering of software company CEOs, COOs, and me (now that I’m not either). During a recent meeting, the issue of liability insurance for software companies came up, and the universal attitude among all attendees was “don’t bother with it because everyone (unfortunately) is used to buggy software, and no one would waste their time suing a company because  of typical bugs.” The last time someone tried to sue a software company for bugs, according to our collective recollection, was when a construction company in Florida took Lotus Development Corp. to court because a number in a spreadsheet didn’t come out right. The case was later dropped, without a settlement.

Well, our attitude was just proven wrong. According to Newsbytes, an on-line news feed with international computing news, a Pennsylvania man, Jeffrey Fishbein, is now suing Corel Corp. for problems he claims to have had with their landmark package, CorelDraw. And, to make matters worse, a Philadelphia law firm is trying to turn the case into a class-action lawsuit. Of course, as would be expected, Corel denies the claims, and calls the action “ambulance chasing”.

Mr. Fishbein first filed the suit this past June, and has recently expanded the scope of the suit to cover the new CorelDraw 6.0. The suit claims that CorelDraw 4 and 5 were not properly tested before they were released to the public, and were therefore released in a defective condition, were unmerchantable and unable to pass as suitable in the trade, and failed to load or execute properly.

An amazingly broad claim, especially when you pause to consider that millions of copies of CorelDraw of both versions have been sold, and the products have won around 200 awards from magazines. This certainly doesn’t pass as unmerchantable in my dictionary, and while I have personally had problems with CorelDraw 5 loading, a call to their technical support quickly set me straight (I neglected to read the installation directions thoroughly – imagine that).

A Corel spokesperson has indicated that the company has been told that some of its customers have been approached by the Philadelphia law firm representing Mr. Fishbein to join in the case. The spokesperson also said the law firm is “mounting a pretty aggressive campaign on-line” to recruit further plaintiffs. While buggy application software is a pain in the butt to deal with, it’s an accepted part of a computer user’s life. This is not necessarily a good thing. It smacks of complacency on both the parts of users and developers.

As a former software developer, I can attest to the fact that no amount of testing will ever make software truly bug free. A developer may be completely confident that no really serious bugs exist, but then something will be done in a weird sequence and things break. For all of you who have your own software development groups, I’m sure you’ve gone through this as well.

However, there are now several movements under way to make software developers more responsible for the problems in their software. The lawsuit by Mr. Fishbein is an extreme, to be sure, but a large number of InfoWorld readers have been pounding the InfoWorld Gripe-Line with suggestions on how to make software developers more accountable for their products. Among the most popular is the idea of requiring software companies, under the UCC (the Uniform Commerce Code), to maintain and publish a list of known bugs in the software, to accompany the software. While some people may equate this to waving one’s dirty laundry out in the open for all to see, it would be a useful exercise for many who hit the same bugs as already documented.

Albeit, the proposition is also a scary one for neophytes, and it makes a great weapon for competitors (assuming their software is clean). Some may argue, of course, that one person’s bugs are another person’s features, but that attitude can only be taken so far.

To put this into context for a majority of PCGR readers, imagine putting your most current driver bugs on-line for the world to see. After all, drivers are software too. With lawsuits like the one launched against Corel, this may be the only way to preempt such attacks – the software equivalent of the pharmaceutical industry’s warnings and disclaimers. I imagine the one for Windows 95 would kill several trees if printed out. Of course, the other options is to ship bug free software…