Why software doesn't work

Books: Authors say the public needs to pay more attention to how computers and their use evolve.

January 03, 2000|By Phillip Robinson | Phillip Robinson,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

I bumped into a great computer book on the "just in" shelf of my public library -- you know, that place that was so popular before the Internet became the cool way to learn things.

This new book wasn't about how to buy this computer or use that program. It was about how to make all programs better, through a technique most of us have mastered to some degree: complaining.

"The Software Conspiracy" ( [W6: www.books.mcgrawhill-] .com, $22.95) makes author Mark Minasi sound a bit like an "X-Files" compatriot. But the subtitle explains the idea better: "Why software companies put out faulty products, how they can hurt you, and what you can do about it."

I completely agree with that. Software has been given a free ride that ought to stop. We allow it to be buggy and expensive because we've been convinced that it has to be. Minasi shows how wrong those assumptions are, and gives examples of the real threats of bad software -- not just to wallets but to health and life.

He explains the "ship it now" attitude of software companies that are convinced that people want yet another feature, not the squashing of bugs known to be in the program.

Best of all, he tells you what to do about it: how to notice bugs, fight viruses, complain to software makers and generally let them know you're going to spend your tech dollars on reliable wares.

He spends many pages on the despicable proposed "UCITA" law (Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act), which would enshrine software makers' right to warranty only the disk the software comes on. That's right: Read the license on your software someday. Nearly all promise only that you're getting a diskette or CD-ROM, not that there is anything on that disk nor that what's there will accomplish anything.

Imagine if any other industry got this kind of free ride. What if cars were guaranteed only to be so many pounds of metal. And this from an industry that year after year makes untold billions of dollars in profits.

Is it any wonder that the best-known bug -- the Y2K problem -- wasn't fixed for free with some of those profits? That instead the same computer customers had to buy upgrades and utilities and pay consultants to clean up after the software makers' stupid mistake? That there was heavy pressure in Congress to exempt software makers from any possible lawsuits related to Y2K?

Another wonderful computer book is "High Tech Heretic" by Clifford Stoll (www.doubleday.com, $24.95). The subtitle does its job here, too: "Why Computers Don't Belong in the Classroom and Other Reflections by a Computer Contrarian." Minasi is a veteran journalist; Stoll is a veteran hacker -- not the bad kind who breaks into Web sites and such, but the good kind, who invents and improves computer life.

As in his previous book, "Silicon Snake Oil," Stoll has Internetted there, computed that and seen through the hype about computers and education, computers and the "New" economy, and more.

I love the "Index with an Attitude" in "Heretic." Take this selection: "Balancing time spent at computers," followed by "Banana bread recipe," followed by "Barbarians, invasion of teaching by."

But that could mislead you into thinking that this book is goofy. Far from it.

This book is terribly serious and should be in the hands of every school administrator ready to sign a check for more computers. Another dip into that index: "Attention deficit syndrome, encouraged by technology," followed by "Auto manufacturers, and planned obsolescence."

Honorable Mention awards -- for computer books that matter -- should go to "The Invisible Computer" by Donald A. Norman (http: //mitpress.mit.edu, $13.95) and "Data Smog" by David Shenk (www.harpercollins.com, $24).

"Invisible" is about "Why Good Products Can Fail, The Personal Computer Is So Complex, and Information Appliances Are the Solution." This is a heavier, denser book than the others here, but is a fine puncturing of myths about computer design -- including the notion that they must be difficult and that speech recognition or better graphics will make them easy.

It isn't a call to immediate action -- as is "Conspiracy" -- or to inaction -- not buying more computers, as is "Heretic." But it can help us understand why today's PC thinking is painful.

"Data Smog," subtitled "Surviving the Information Glut," wrestles with the problem of too many bits slamming into so many brains. Have a problem? Get a faster computer so you can process more bits, right? Wrong, and Shenk explains why. It takes on mindless upgrades, decentralization and tech mania.

I wish these authors were given the splash awarded to the likes of Bill Gates (for Windows) and Jeff Bezos (for Amazon.com). Gates makes billions doing Windows bigger and (supposedly) better each year. Bezos sells billions, tempting us to always stay home, waiting for the UPS or FedEx van to bring the world to our door.

We ought to be asking more than "How fast can I run?" and "How much can I get?" We ought to ask, "Where do we want to end up" and, "What is it doing to us along the way?"

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