Suppliers hit back over software quality

Firms accept there is a problem with quality but say users must share the blame

Firms accept there is a problem with quality but say users must share the blame

The debate over software quality continues to rage in the user community amid accusations of suppliers releasing too many poor-quality products that have not been sufficiently tested.

IT directors and industry bodies such as Tif and the British Computer Society's Elite group have called on suppliers to conduct more testing to iron out bugs and glitches before releasing software and listen more closely to users' needs and grievances.

Not surprisingly, software suppliers are reluctant to shoulder all the blame for the perceived lack of software quality, although they accept it is an issue.

"Nobody makes perfect software," said Andy Cobbold, customer support director for the UK and Northern Europe at software supplier BMC. "It is a nice concept but it would be too expensive. You can only test so far."

Software firm Serena, for example, said it tries to look at 80% of the problems that could arise from its products as it believes that aiming for 100% would be neither feasible or popular with users. "The software would not be there to meet users' time needs and it would be hopelessly expensive," said Chuck Henderson, director of product marketing at Serena Software.

"There is a balance that needs to be met between customer expectations for complete flawlessness and timeframes and price."

However, Clive Grummett, vice-chairman of the testing group at IT supplier association Intellect said it was "outrageous" for suppliers to say they cannot do more to reduce the number of faults in their software.

"Insufficient emphasis is given to testing products before they are released and far too many faults find their way into software products," said Grummett. "Our industry has suffered too much from faulty software."

Grummett believes users underestimate the damage poor-quality software causes. "I think many users are unaware of how much these faults cost them - they tend to view it in terms of irritation," he said.

Some suppliers, including Microsoft, accept that they need to do more. "I agree that customers should demand the highest quality software; I also agree that as an industry we have a major problem with patch management at the moment," said Stuart Okin, chief security officer at Microsoft. "As an industry, we need to do a much better job than we have done in the past."

Okin said there needs to be a more symbiotic relationship between users and suppliers.

"It is something we need to work together on and we need to raise the bar," he said. "It is a truism that there is no such thing as a perfect system or perfect code but you cannot hide behind that. There are acceptable and unacceptable levels of software quality."

Peter Robertshaw, director of marketing at SAP UK, said the software industry should be constantly focused on improving quality, so criticism from users should be "taken on the chin".

To improve the quality of its own software, SAP is working more closely with its customers in the development phase. Another focus is making products easier to use. "Often what is seen as a quality problem is in the usability," said Robertshaw.

BMC has set up a team within its customer support division that has the ability to block products if it is not happy with their quality and robustness. "We have adopted a proactive approach to stop problems before the software goes out the door," said Cobbold.

However, some suppliers are keen to point out that users need to accept some of the responsibility for the situation. "It is not an issue that can be entirely placed in the lap of the suppliers, we do the best we can to supply the software customers ask for in the timeframe and price range they ask for," said Henderson.

Henderson said users can sometimes cause problems through heavily customising software, inadequate training, poor change management, and buying the wrong product for the job. "Software quality is a very broad term and is sometimes used for a product that doesn't work the way the user wants it to," he said.

The bottom line is that while "perfect" software may be unattainable, more needs to be done to improve software quality and users and suppliers need to work together - trading insults and passing the buck is unlikely to rectify the situation.

Daniel Dresner, standards manager at the National Computing Centre, said, "There is a toolbox of existing standards built on lessons learnt from the successes and failures experienced by software engineers worldwide. We all need to be prepared to negotiate the balance of time/quality/content/cost. We must not just chant the quality mantra of 'plan-do-check-act' but to realise it too."

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