Bog jobs

There was a time in the early decades of last century when drivers would pack spare spark plugs in order to be sure their cars would eventually get them from A to B. I can remember family trips in the early 1970s when my dad, who had a penchant for English cars before turning to Valiants, would routinely reach into the boot, grab the wheel brace and use it to whack the starter motor back into life. In the early 90s, I was stupid enough to buy an old Fiat built with the worst of Mafia-grade steel. My wife still thinks I'm an idiot six years after selling it. With vehicles like the Toyota Corolla, the Japanese truly arrived in the car industry over the past three decades. Very boring, but they just wouldn't stop. They gave the Europeans and Americans a real scare. Wouldn't it be good if the equivalent of a Japanese-led quality invasion breached the frontlines of the software industry?

Some organisations, like Visa International - which can never stop - have the absolute business imperative and the resources to hammer the bugs out of anything. Visa's IT shop has raised software testing to a fine art. The company, which runs the biggest payments engine in the world, has had 98 minutes of downtime in 12 years. With 2500 system changes a month and two million lines of code modified annually, extraordinary effort goes into change management and quality assurance. Just one project involved 50 people in two quality assurance groups with the job of putting software through its paces.

Few have the in-house development and bug stopping resources of a Visa. Most have to rely on ready-made products and industry support. The Standish Group International estimates that faulty software costs businesses $US78 billion a year. A number of reasons are postulated in US CIO magazine this month for this poor state of affairs.

These include software industry economics - that is, by gathering much of their money from up-front payment for perpetual licensing agreements, it's in the industries' interests to offer frequent upgrades and to cast doubts about the continuity of ongoing support for earlier versions. There are charges, such as the 15 to 20 per cent annual maintenance fees, to cover product updates and tech support. Partly needed, by the way, because the products were pushed too quickly into the market. Driven by quarterly earnings numbers, vendors must get the versions out the door.

Various heavy-hitter groups in the US are pushing the industry for reform. Meanwhile, licensing changes could help. Renewable licensing agreements, for instance, where software is used for two or three years (85 per cent of the cost of perpetual, say) and renewed only if the customer is happy with the product and its support. Other options include renting software, more or less the same thing, but for a shorter duration.

So what's your take on being a software industry customer? Are you getting a Corolla or an old Fiat ?

E-mail me at david_beynon@idg.com.au, or slip a lead to our news editor sandra_rossi@idg.com.au

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