Quality in this business is not a concern

Personal Computers

November 24, 1997|By Stephen Manes | Stephen Manes,New York Times News Service

LAST WEEK, more than 200,000 members of the computer world descended on Las Vegas for the 18th annual Comdex fall trade show, where daily keynote speeches by industry luminaries discussed scintillating issues such as "open standards-based computing with a horizontal market model." Monday, outside the Aladdin Theater for the Performing Arts, I discovered a battered floppy disk labeled "Computopia and What It Means, or The Horror!" None of the keynote speakers appears to have been responsible for the address it contains:

"Sorry for the late start, but our mail server was down. Now, I know it's become customary at these events to present self-serving gee-whiz visions of computopian futures where, to paraphrase Garrison Keillor, all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the computers are above average. But last week I went back to review videotapes of some of those dream worlds, and I reluctantly conclude that not even the Jetsons will ever actually live there.

"Our computopian keynote videos tend to focus on warm, fuzzy benefits to schools and poor folks, but we all know the money-making opportunities lie elsewhere. We love to flaunt charming cases of 'personal empowerment' afforded by the Internet, but in reality we're desperately striving to transform it into something that mimics the worst of cable television and catalog shopping, only fuzzier and slower.

"In the computopian world, people talk to computers that understand them and respond in perfectly inflected English. In the real world, most computers are as talkative and responsive as broccoli. In computopia, smart software 'agents' find the best deals on everything from airfares to plumbers and take care of the transactions from start to finish. In the real world, it's hard to find humans to do this.

"In computopia, computers and communications are easy to use and always work. In the real world? Let's see."

On a huge screen, a montage of error messages dissolves into excerpts from baffling manuals and helpless help screens. To the beat of a busy signal, a Web page full of meaningless graphics crawls glacially down the screen. People sitting at computer screens slap their foreheads and pound keyboards frantically. A technical support representative wearing a telephone headset calmly asks, "Have you tried reformatting your hard drive?"

"Admit it: We tend to deliver products that are neither easy to use nor stunningly reliable. So how have we managed to survive and prosper? Two words: fault tolerance. I'm not talking about fault-tolerant computers. I'm talking about fault-tolerant consumers.

"Faced with shorter product cycles, we cut corners and release products that we haven't tested fully or know full well have serious defects. We act as if forcing customers to spend their valuable time combing the Internet for bug fixes and updated drivers is perfectly acceptable behavior. It has come to the point where we may put out a bug fix even before we officially ship the product.

"We send hardware out the door without including software that makes it work or manuals that explain it. We constantly introduce new technologies that offer minuscule improvements at the expense of reliability and compatibility.

"We offer services like e-mail and 'unlimited Internet access' that we know we can't deliver dependably. We expect people to discard perfectly functional hardware every couple of years, and we help the process by developing fatter, slower software that old machines can't run. We fudge specifications so that products seem bigger and faster than they really are. We overstate how long batteries last and understate how much hardware it takes to run our programs. We force people to adapt to our machines, rather than the other way around.

"Our industry's collective arrogance is nothing new, and it isn't limited to the consumer market. Just last week, I personally received a form thanking me for renewing a magazine subscription through February 1900. Because many programmers and engineers arrogantly failed to consider the simple mathematical implications of the turn of the century, billions of dollars will be diverted from productive uses to fixing the year 2000 problem.

"But from now on, that sort of arrogance should be part of our past, not our future. Today, I urge you to make 1998 the Year of Quality. Instead of pushing new products out the door in a hurry, we must focus on making them work, not just on their own, but with each other. We must demand not just that products work, but that they work flawlessly, simply and elegantly.

"We must no longer paper over our mistakes with something we call 'support.' We must stop calling defects 'issues.' We must understand that customers do not want to be computer technicians. We must develop something called humility."

A murmur ripples through the crowd. Several people get up to leave.

"Where's everybody going? Can't you take a joke? Quality? Get real! Spend too much on quality, the competition will eat you alive. And our customers aren't going anywhere. Our practice of making quality a low priority is so pervasive in our industry that we've given them nowhere to go. As long as they think things have to be this way, fault-tolerant consumers remain the greatest bulwark against fault-free computers.

"And what does that mean? It means that for us, computopia is already here."

Pub Date: 11/24/97

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