LAB NOTES

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
The timeworn phrase pretty much sums up this year in information technology. The industry
failed to score a blockbuster success in 1998, although plenty of companies tried.


Microsoft Corp. topped the field by releasing service packs in volume for Office,
Exchange 5.5, Microsoft Windows NT 4.0, Systems Network Architecture Server and Visual
Studio, in addition to dozens of patches and fixes.


Microsoft certainly deserves the software marketer of the year award for selling what
amounts to a service pack for Windows 95 in the guise of a new operating
system—Windows 98. But Win98 merely fulfills the hype that Microsoft had been dishing
out about pre-launched Win95.


Trouble brewing. As evidenced by lackluster
products on the software front this year, quality does not seem to be improving nearly as
fast as on the hardware front.


Any user who, like me, remembers the days when 10M or 500M hard drives would fail with
depressing regularity can appreciate the leap in quality that hardware companies have
made.


Faulty memory chips, failing floppy drives and motherboards with soldered patch wires
are mostly bad memories now.


But when users upgrade software—or apply a service pack—we trade old problems
for new ones. Peripheral plug-and-play still works inconsistently. Installing software
drivers resembles playing a game of Russian roulette at the desk.


Although bugs in processor chips have received a lot of ink, they pale in comparison to
all the bug-infested software on the market and the frustration and lost productivity it
causes.


Companies that publicize their releases of multiple beta versions aren’t helping.
Any software company with revenue in the hundreds of millions should be capable of
shipping a workable package without soliciting help from users.


The much-hyped beta release seems targeted more to marketing than to forming a crucible
to test the application’s strengths and weaknesses.


Yum, another service release. Upgrading
software should be something we look forward to. Instead, every service release or
migration is turning into a dreaded source of new problems that will take who knows how
long to eradicate. As a result, many sites will upgrade only when forced.


Some companies claim they add new features or integrate others to bestow innovations on
customers. It seems more likely that competitive practices and boardroom machinations have
come to exert a greater influence on software development than users do.


Let’s hope the software industry will make a New Year’s resolution to reform
its errant ways. If users get too fed up, they can go find shareware and freeware on their
own.


—Jason Byrne
Internet: jbyrne@gcn.com

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