Chasing Bugs in the Electronic Village

This article was first published in the New York Times Magazine on 4 August 1992. How long ago was that? You will see that I needed to explain the following technical terms: CompuServe, icons, Wysiwyg, and smilies. There was (as far as most of the world knew) no Internet. Software was new. So were bugs.

I couldn’t wait to buy Microsoft Word for Windows — rumored to be the new Cuisinart, Mack truck and Swiss Army knife of word-processing software, full-featured, powerful and, for a writer, the ultimate time-saving device. I was writing a long book, and I wanted the best. One day in January 1990, I finally got to tear open a software box bigger than some computers, and out it came. The world’s pre-eminent software manufacturer had spent roughly as long developing this word processor as the Manhattan Project had spent cooking up the atomic bomb, but secrecy had not been quite as airtight. For more than a year, Microsoft had been leaking juicy tidbits to its waiting army of trade journalists, computer consultants and corporate purchasers. Word for Windows (a.k.a. Winword or WfW) would be Wysiwyg (the standard acronym for What You See Is What You Get) — that is, it would display page layouts and typefaces with high fidelity to the final printed product. It would let users work with nine documents on the screen at once. It would have a macro language — a way to spend hours writing mini-programs to streamline all those little chores that can suck up milliseconds of a writer’s time.

And it would also have — in some corner of my mind, I must already have known this — bugs.

An electronic culture has developed with its own evolving rules of decorum, its own politesse and its own methods of conveying rage.

Computer software is the brightest of bright spots on the American economic landscape, a consumer product evolving in a floodtide of innovation and ingenuity, an industry that has barely noticed the recession or seen any challenge from overseas. Bugs are its special curse. They are an ancient devil — the product defect — in a peculiarly exasperating modern dress. As software grows more complex and we come to rely on it more, the industry is discovering that bugs are more pervasive and more expensive than ever before. Word for Windows had big bugs and little bugs. A little bug might mean that a user would sometimes find the em dashes (—) and en dashes (–) switched. Even a little bug could send users running for their blood-pressure medication. “This bug is severe,” one user railed at Microsoft when he discovered what was happening to his ems and ens. “It renders the whole setup useless for any serious work.”

A bigger bug would cause unwanted typefaces to appear willy-nilly in one’s documents. An even bigger bug would cause a poignant message to appear on screen

Unrecoverable Application Error
Terminating Current Application

after which the computer would crash, die, freeze, lock up or hang (the slang was evolving too fast even for Word’s electronic thesaurus to keep up). The U.A.E., as it became known, would send one’s current work into the digital oblivion so familiar to computer users.

Searching for help, I stumbled into an odd corner of the electronic village, a “forum” on the CompuServe Information Service devoted entirely to a permanent floating conversation about the ins and outs of Word. CompuServe is a vast electronic network that subscribers can dial into via modem to use a wide array of services from game-playing to stock quotations. Twenty-four hours a day, users from a dozen time zones dial in, read their mail and everyone else’s, and post replies. Microsoft’s Word for Windows forum provided instant access not only to the experiences of other users but also to Microsoft’s development team — because an assortment of programmers also joined in, including the program manager responsible for Word’s development.

Compuserve fosters a strange form of communication, more casual than letters, more formal than telephone conversation, and extremely public. An electronic culture has developed with its own evolving rules of decorum, its own politesse and its own methods of conveying rage, not to mention its indispensable acronyms: IMHO (in my humble opinion), FWIW (for what it’s worth), PMJI (pardon my jumping in), ROFL (rolling on the floor laughing), IANAL (I am not a lawyer). The characters ;) are supposed to mean “just kidding” — on the theory that they suggest, sideways, a face that is smiling and winking.

The medium creates a modern kind of town meeting — perhaps the only real town meeting left — where opinions from the humble to the slanderous fly freely. When war breaks out in the Persian Gulf, say, CompuServe instantly opens a new forum. But never mind war — these days the waters are roiled by debate over the rivalry between Microsoft and I.B.M., with partisans as fierce as any religious zealot. “I have never seen such a vicious crowd,” one CompuServe participant said recently, and another replied: “Hum, try the Issues forum Paranormal section where the Bay Area Skeptics and the psi-clones are mugging each other.” I began spending hours each week watching Microsoft’s product forum as users discussed Word’s fine points, traded tips like fussy chefs exchanging recipes, and harangued the company’s ever-diplomatic support crew about the essential mystery: Why couldn’t the software be cleansed of all these bugs? Every so often there was progress — of sorts.

“Your vociferous complaints, while a bit overbearing, have born fruit,” the program manager, Chase Franklin, told me. “I just met with the testing engineer assigned to the problem and he has determined two things: The model 80 he was using did not hang when displaying the symbol fonts, it just took about 3 minutes to update the screen to a correct display, sans the symbols.” Translation: My latest bug was not actually crashing the computer, as I had thought. It merely caused the computer to pause for three minutes after each character I typed.

Without quite meaning to, I had become a member of a nettlesome group of users that someone dubbed the Winword Gadfly Team. The other Gadflies were a Hollywood screenwriter teaching at Columbia University, a Toronto teacher and a Caltech mathematical physicist. We loved our word processor — it let us fiddle and tinker until we had completely automated tasks as simple as counting the words in a chapter or as complicated as formatting a screenplay. And we hated it — because the more we used it, the more bugs we discovered. As we never tired of pointing out.

“When I said, ‘No no no no a thousand times no’ just now, you might have interpreted that to be sort of, well, negative.”

“Don’t you guys ever work?” an exasperated Microsoft developer asked a few months later. “I swear you live here.”

Software bugs defy the industry’s best efforts at quality control. Manufacturers may spend far more time and resources on testing and repairing their software than on the original design and coding. “Debugging” is not just an integral part of the development process; it is sometimes the dominant part. Programmers are trying to combat the increasing complexity of their creations with new techniques — modular design, for example, that might contain damage as flood compartments do in a ship — but so far these have made little difference.

The problem is that software is different from other merchandise. Computer programs are the most intricate, delicately balanced and finely interwoven of all the products of human industry to date. They are machines with far more moving parts than any engine: the parts don’t wear out, but they interact and rub up against one another in ways the programmers themselves cannot predict. When a program doubles in size, the potential for unexpected bugs more than doubles — far more, just as the number of potential love affairs more than doubles when the population of your office rises from 10 to 20.
So developers turn to user testing. Beta tests, as these adventures are known, have grown to enormous scales. Microsoft and I.B.M. have each recently concluded beta tests in which tens of thousands of users participated. The Word for Windows beta test had lasted many months — but not long enough, it seemed. We customers began to feel like unwilling beta testers. And perhaps not Microsoft’s favorite beta testers at that — certainly I wasn’t doing my part to maintain the upbeat spirit of the company’s Compuserve forum.

“When I said, ‘No no no no a thousand times no’ just now, you might have interpreted that to be sort of, well, negative,” I conceded to one developer. A year had passed since the original January 1990 release, and strange typefaces kept showing up here and there. Some users were tempted to give up Winword altogether — but changing word processors is almost as traumatic as changing religions, and Winword’s competitors had their bugs too. Meanwhile, to temperamental writers, hoping that their word processors would become as second-nature as an old typewriter, every encounter with a bug was a slap in the face. Guy Gallo, the Columbia screenwriter Gadfly, encountering the typeface problem yet again, hit his Caps Lock key: “THIS IS THE SAME BUG WE HAVE BEEN SCREAMING ABOUT SINCE WFW’S RELEASE.”

That was the problem. Winword 1.0 had been updated with Winword 1.01, Winword 1.1, and then Winword 1.1a. (Microsoft was certainly doling out version numbers sparingly.) A few bugs had been eliminated but more had been discovered, and the general impression was of sliding backward downhill. Why were we still talking about bugs that had been reported and confirmed a year before?

“You need to read your license agreement,” one of the developers declared on Compuserve after I had needled him for a while. “We don’t have an obligation to issue another release of the product, James, and it’s warranted on an ‘as is’ basis. We don’t even have a legal obligation to worry about your data loss.” This was true. Some bug-plagued software users have tried to sue manufacturers for damages, but the courts virtually never sustain such claims.

The Gadflies discovered that Word’s formatting instructions did not function as expected for footnote numbers. Worse, Winword’s “templates” — documents that stored styles, customized command menus and other user information — seemed to take an increasingly long time to save. At first they had saved in seconds, like normal documents. As the templates grew larger, however, they seemed to cross an invisible threshold, and now users found themselves waiting two minutes or more — long enough to panic and reach for the on-off switch. Worst of all perhaps, typefaces — fonts — behaved in a variety of weird ways that someone gave the name “phont phunnies.”

The developers said they were trying. It was a hard task: users would report problems that Microsoft’s testers could not reproduce on their machines. Different computers, different amounts of memory, different documents, different combinations of software made it impossible sometimes to track down bugs, although the Winword program manager said he now had 20 test engineers tracking our reports.

But Microsoft’s marketing strategists had more pressing problems. Winword was by far the dominant word processing program designed to be used with Microsoft’s Windows operating environment, but a relatively small number of personal-computer users use Windows. Overall, the market leader by a large margin was WordPerfect, which was known to be beta testing its long-awaited entry into the Windows market. Microsoft officials were worried. WordPerfect commands enormous loyalty, in part because — unlike Microsoft — the company makes a practice of releasing frequent free upgrades to repair even minor bugs, and in part because it maintains, at enormous expense, a toll-free telephone support line — an investment Microsoft, which says it fields 14,000 calls a day, has been unwilling to make.

In June 1991, the Gadflies arrived en masse at Microsoft headquarters, in Redmond, Wash., a suburb of Seattle. The corporate giant seemed to have disguised itself as a small college. Its bucolic 256-acre campus mingled elegant plantings with outdoor basketball courts. Its executives and developers turned out to be mostly in their 20’s, wearing jeans and T-shirts. It was as if gray hair, neckties and the words Mr. and Ms. had suddenly been banished from the earth.

Plucked from our faceless electronic existences, we had been flown in for a preview of Word 2.0 — to serve as a sort of cranky focus group, we supposed. Curmudgeons, meet your new word processor. Finally, here was the major upgrade: Microsoft hoped it would keep Wordperfect from achieving a new dominance in the Windows market; we hoped it would rescue us from the bugs.

We loved it. We hated it. Winword had amazing new features. Not just the beautifully designed “mail-merge” feature — lone writers don’t have much occasion to send customized mass mailings linked to thousand-entry data bases. Not just the “grammar checker” — I already know my sentences are too long, thank you very much. There was an automatic envelope printer — Microsoft’s research had revealed that some people still kept typewriters on hand for that purpose alone. There was a built-in drawing program, a built-in business-chart program, a built-in equation editor. If I wanted to number a group of paragraphs, insert a table, zoom in on my text, or create side-by-side columns, I had merely to click my mouse on a pictorial icon at the top of my screen. No wonder my book was already a half-year late.

Yet there were signs that all was not well. A feature meant to compare two versions of a document still did not actually function; it was a shell, as one of the developers admitted privately, with little more purpose than to persuade the trade press to add one more “Yes” to the feature-comparison charts that always accompany word-processor roundups. (“There were so many higher priority items that users requested, we couldn’t squeeze it in,” Microsoft says now, adding that the feature would “probably” work better in a later version.) The strange font problems seemed to remain — but perhaps it was too soon to tell. Another beta test was getting under way.

For the Winword team, the next months brought intense pressure. Wordperfect for Windows was rumored to be imminent. Wordperfect had run a long, large beta program. Microsoft’s programmers had been able to monitor its progress and thought they could match it feature for feature. Still the original, non-Windows version had 9 million or 10 million users who would naturally be inclined to stay with a brand they knew. And meanwhile, another competitor, Lotus Development Corporation’s Ami Pro, came out with a startlingly improved new version.

Winword 2.0’s release slipped from September into October. The Gadflies, their ranks swelled with new volunteers, were shocked — shocked! — to discover that the developers were deliberately leaving bugs unrepaired: they were declared to be “features,” or “by design.” It was triage. In a candid moment on Compuserve, Microsoft programmers admitted the existence of an internal list called, evocatively, “Won’t Fix.”
Had 20 months of angst-ridden electronic messages been for naught? Guy Gallo begged for some assurance that “Won’t Fix is more like Bug Purgatory than Bug Hell.” At a Windows conference in August, one of the newer Gadflies, Ellen Nagler, a California consultant, handed out buttons: “Won’t Fix” and “It’s Not a Bug — It’s a Feature.” The Winword developers asked for a set of the buttons. Emotion ran high.

“It IS only SOFTWARE,” one of the developers typed in exasperation.

Finally, in November, the program reached stores, accompanied by an enormous wave of promotion that included for the first time, commercials on network television. Reviewers raved. They loved the ability to drag and drop chunks of text with a mouse; they admired the new mail-merge and envelope-addressing features; and, sure enough, they fell into Microsoft’s trap and gave Winword a “Yes” in the document-comparison check box. They barely mentioned the bugs. How could a reviewer on deadline be sure that any particular problem wasn’t an example of another chronic and costly industry problem: the one known as User Error?

The Compuserve message traffic was not so polite. Users reported old bugs and new ones. It seemed that you could crash the program by using the spelling checker on certain parts of documents. The feature that let you search for a certain word or phrase seemed to break under peculiar circumstances. Users who mixed pictures with their text found that the pictures tended to disappear when the document was printed out. Microsoft’s Compuserve support staff scrambled to field the complaints. “EIGHTEEN MONTHS LATER, this is approaching ridiculous,” one longtime user exclaimed. “Explain to me again how, with all that feedback, and with all the input from the Gadflies before and during the beta, these major hassles never got fixed? What’s it gonna take?”
Said another customer: “I’m dead in the water and so are all of my users. Quite frankly we are up in arms about this. Why doesn’t MS debug the program before releasing the product to the public…. Help me, my ship is sinking!!!!”

In a simpler era, two or three years ago, software vendors could bring a programmer to the telephone, make a quick repair to their code, and ship out a replacement diskette within days. But now every change in a program must be tested exhaustively to uncover possible side effects. At best the company manages to offer a maintenance upgrade a few times a year.

Microsoft, accustomed to gentle treatment by the trade press, refuses to make its top executives available to discuss its policies on software defects. Chris Peters, the general manager for word-processing applications, says carefully when asked about the persistence of bugs, “The goal is not to have any.” He inadvertently fueled the battle raging on Compuserve by telling the press that only a tiny handful of advanced users would ever encounter flaws in the product; meanwhile, his programmers were working to eradicate some of them in Winword 2.0a, finally released this March. Yet even now, as I type away in a standard font called Times New Roman, if I copy some ordinary Times New Roman text from another document, I will see … wait … horrors! … an unwanted font that Winword labels Futura though it looks suspiciously like Courier.

Gradually the Gadflies have tried to get back to work and finally take advantage of our state-of-the-art writing tool, our ultimate time-saving device. But new users continue to turn up, complaining about weird font changes, little realizing that they are seeing a bug with two years of history. Microsoft’s support representatives tell them politely that their suggestions will be considered.

Gadfly echoes still reverberate through the electronic village. The other day I noticed one user telling another, “You know who you should contact is James Gleick…. He really must have a love-hate thing with WfW, because the level of frustration he seems to experience would kill a normal man.”