Full Disclosure from Microsoft

Microsoft still reports issues (its charming term for bugs) with products it has been selling for years.

A Brief Personal History of PC Bugs

Frustrated by that obnoxious bug that bit you last week? It's nothing new. I was first stung when the PC was but a baby. The Thursday before Memorial Day weekend in 1982, I sped home with a brand-new IBM PC, complete with DOS 1.1, 64KB of RAM, and the first pair of double-sided IBM floppy drives in New York.

Gleaning information from the gorgeously linen-boxed manuals, I quickly taught myself how to copy files and format disks. With the deadline for a mammoth project looming, I expected to be ready to process words within a day or two.

The next morning, FedEx dropped off a freshly minted copy of MicroPro's WordStar. I backed it up according to the instructions and put the new disk in the drive. It didn't work.

A few minutes later I had my first encounter with the concept of technical support. And I do mean concept. As I quickly deduced from a call to California on my dime, MicroPro's policy was simple: End users didn't deserve the company's help. That was supposed to come from my dealer. But when I phoned him, I discovered that his technical prowess didn't extend much beyond filling out a FedEx form.

When I found someone at MicroPro who was grudgingly willing to talk to someone as plebeian as a mere customer, he dimly recalled something about DOS 1.1 being the problem. With DOS 1.0, everything might work fine. Maybe.

It was now 4 p.m. The IBM Product Center would close at 5 p.m. for the long weekend. After a frantic rush-hour drive, I convinced a salesman to give me a bootleg version of DOS 1.0.

Back home, I put the DOS disk in one drive and WordStar in the other. It worked. Until MicroPro repaired the problem (which took months), my double-sided drives had to be used at half-capacity in single-sided mode with WordStar.

This first of many maddening incidents set the ugly pattern for all those that followed. Company creates problem. Company arrogantly refuses to deal with problem, much less fix it in a timely fashion. Customer limps along with work-around and curses company. Customer later pays for upgrade, because the alternatives are even less palatable.

Learning the Hard Way

Hardware bugs have their own long history. The awful IDS Prism was my first printer. The first one came dead on arrival, and its replacement had every design defect imaginable. The color ribbon jammed. The printer overheated so badly that pieces of plastic inside came unglued. Software support involved writing your own Basic programs to change fonts.

The low point came when the company sent a gear and spring assembly for the horrible ribbon transport mechanism. Removing the old one required an odd-sized Allen wrench that was impossible to find. In the end, a tech-support person took pity on me and sent the tool I shouldn't have needed in the first place.

Not long after, I reviewed a program called Memory Shift. In theory, it could load several programs into RAM at once, and let you switch among them. In practice, it didn't work. When I slammed it in print, one of its handlers claimed it was a gamma test version--even though it was the same version that went to paying customers.

Flash forward: Some products today have been around to the point of omega testing--and still don't work right. Microsoft still reports "issues" (its charming term for "bugs") with products it has been selling for months or years. Drivers still cause problems. Plumbing that's been around as long as QuickTime is still prone to failure.

Tech support has come full circle. Getting to a live human is harder than ever.

The current mantra is "Let them eat downloads" from the Web--when and if the fixes appear. Only a few vendors, mostly involved with hardware for graphical output, compete on quality.

Which is why every time I open a box or install a download, I feel the shudder of trepidation that I learned back on the second day of using my very first personal computer. Is there any other industry where virtually every new product makes you wonder, "Will it wreck my machine? Will it actually work?"

PC World Contributing Editor Stephen Manes is the cohost of Digital Duo, a series appearing on public television stations nationwide. For program information, see www.digitalduo.com.

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