IT chiefs call for quality standards on software

Users want better testing and fewer bugs

Users want better testing and fewer bugs.

The long-running debate over software quality was reignited last week. IT directors, irate at being branded software pirates by suppliers, called on the software industry to get its act together and improve the quality of bug-ridden software.

One explanation for the perceived dip in software quality is its increased complexity. With more lines of code, the chance of errors logically increases.

However, this argument fails to impress some IT directors, who claim the problems over software quality stem from suppliers' obsession with speedy product development cycles.

"There is pressure to get stuff out the door. The problem is this pressure tends to be driven by sales and not engineering," said Ben Booth, group IT director at market research firm Mori.

Booth said he felt that while paying for the software, he was also testing it for the suppliers. He advised users to steer clear of version 1.0 releases and called for better software and more testing before releases hit the shelves.

However, more testing would make software "prohibitively expensive", said Tony Lock, chief analyst at Bloor Research. "Users want better quality software but they do not want to pay for it. While some suppliers could do more, users need to be more realistic."

User expectations

Lock believes suppliers have got better at producing software with fewer bugs but users' expectations have risen accordingly.

Others say suppliers have got off too lightly, arguing that users have settled for shoddy software for too long. "I do not think the issue of poor-quality software has been highlighted enough. It has been accepted that poor-quality software is part of the cost of an IT project," said David Roberts, chief executive of the Corporate IT Forum, Tif.

However, some IT directors think it is time this attitude changed. "I think it is our fault if we do not reject poor-quality software," said Owen Williams, head of IT at global property consultancy Knight Frank. "If it is poor-quality, it should be thrown back at the supplier and they should be made to do all the work. If we accept it, the suppliers will carry on releasing it."

While Lock feels users need to be more realistic, he stressed they should not be afraid to complain. "People need to complain more constructively," he said. If users do not have any success talking to suppliers, they should let the world know and use the internet and the media.

But what constitutes poor-quality software is open to debate. There is no industry standard for defining how many bugs are acceptable or whether a product is fit for purpose.

Whereas there are blatant examples of unacceptable quality, such as a financial software package that cannot calculate tax - a situation experienced by one IT director who spoke to Computer Weekly - other problems are less severe and can be solved by patches or workarounds.

Lock said, "Users should do their homework and ensure they are buying the appropriate product for the job. They should include an adequate period of acceptance testing in their contract and, most importantly, implement effective change management."


Richard Watkinson, technology and media partner at corporate law firm Pinsents, said IT directors should pay close attention to their supplier contracts.

If the contract contains a mechanism for rejecting software, for example, during the acceptance testing phase, it must be closely followed. If not, users risk forfeiting their rights to reject defective software down the line.

However, Watkinson said if a supplier sells a product it claims is "fully tried and tested" as opposed to "warts and all", the customer may have a claim for damages if the system fails or proves difficult to implement.

Ultimately, Watkinson urged users to negotiate a suitably long period in their contract during which they can test the new product and reject it if they are not happy with it.

Whatever precautions both sides take, the perfect piece of software is unlikely to ever exist. "Software has suffered from quality issues almost from day one," said Lock. "Nobody's perfect and nobody creates perfect code."

Dennis Keeling, chief executive of the British Application Software Developers Association, said it was "very rare" for Basda to receive complaints about software quality. "I can count them on one hand," he said.

Keeling believes that problems often arise from users tailoring software to their needs and he urged them to stick to vanilla implementations where possible.

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