A Bug by Any Other Name
                                             "Design Side Effect"? "Known Issue"?
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also I don't know if I would use that word," a Microsoft support engineer said.
   "What word," I replied innocently.
   "You know--that three-letter word you just used."
   Of course he wouldn't use it. He's under strict instructions never to say bug to a customer. In the official parlance of the world's most powerful software company, when a product is defective, one may speak delicately of an "issue." This could be a "known issue" or an "intermittent issue." Then again, it could be a "design side effect" or "undocumented behavior" or perhaps a "technical glitch." Excuse me while I go powder my nose.
   Microsoft has developed a fascinating style of using language--Microspeak, let's call it--with a refinement, a subtlety, a fine polish all its own. To understand certain announcements and news releases issuing from Redmond, Wash., requires rhetorical analysis and possibly a glossary. The exercise can be worth the effort, though, because after all, Microsoft is Microsoft. These days, if you don't savvy Microspeak, you're going to be left behind.
   Consider a brief yet artful "Media Alert," released April 16 with the headline, "MSN Doubles E-Mail Capacity." (In slightly different form, the announcement appeared on Microsoft's Web site five days later.) It began, "Continuing to make the service more useful, MSN, The Microsoft Network, is doubling its number of e-mail servers."
   Continuing to make the service . . . (Rule No. 1: Never lead with bad news. The real reason for this media alert was that e-mail delivery to the Microsoft Network's 2.2 million customers had failed on a wide scale over the past weeks, reaching a point of crisis and forcing MSN to break its silence.) . . . more useful . . . (than what?) . . . doubling its number of e-mail servers. Of course, this is careful misdirection. The number of e-mail servers was not the real subject of the alert. The real subject made its first and last appearance in a subordinate clause in the following sentence: Responding to a partial e-mail delay earlier this week . . .
   What is a partial e-mail delay? No further comment here, but the tail end of a second media alert three days later explained: As MSN's membership grows and becomes more active, we process more and larger e-mail messages each day. Translation: our systems are overwhelmed by the volume of mail. Earlier in the week we experienced some intermittent issues--translation: breakdowns--with our e-mail servers, resulting in delayed delivery of e-mail for some members . . . delayed, in some cases, days and even weeks.
   With further characteristic touches, the announcement also noted: No e-mail should have been lost (delicious ambiguity there) during this upgrade period (don't forget, this is good news!). Emergency workers in the Mississippi flood plains, throwing sandbags onto the dikes, have encountered similar upgrade periods and intermittent issues.
   In reality, according to users, considerable amounts of e-mail were lost and the problems have continued, more than a month after these two brief announcements--which are the only public statements Microsoft has made on the subject. Microspeak is language with a purpose, and it works, in a way. The press, both mainstream and technical, has just briefly noted MSN's e-mail troubles, in contrast to much more heavily publicized problems at America Online. And unlike America Online, MSN has not offered its users any refund for the lost service.
   And so on. The odd thing is that individuals who work for Microsoft often have a candid, plain-speaking style. Most of them would be perfectly capable of saying: "We messed up. Here's what the problem is. We're sorry. We're going to try to fix it." Somehow the corporate culture has grown in a different direction. If Microsoft offers software labeled "preview," you may think you're getting a first look at a finished product. Actually, preview, in Microspeak, is what blunter software companies call "beta"--meaning incomplete, buggy, and unsupported. This spring, when the company rushed out a set of fixes for bugs in the mail software that shipped with Office 97, it dubbed these the "Internet Mail Enhancement Patch."
   These are not lies, exactly. They are the form of debased language that George Orwell called "euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness."
   "A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details," he wrote. "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." Lately we call this "spin." Perhaps the Microsoft style seems all the more garish because this great institution operates not in the sphere of politics or war, where we've grown accustomed to pacification and collateral damage and plausible deniability, but in the technical realm, where words usually mean what they say. If what you want is a half round nose chisel or a dynamic link library entry point function, you had better call it by its right name.
   Microsoft has brought spin "to a high art in the software industry," says Peter Deegan, editor of Woody's Office Watch, an online newsletter for Microsoft users. "The MSN email debacle reminded me immediately of the story of how the old U.S.S.R. is supposed to have announced the Chernobyl nuclear accident to the world media." Ah, Peter, if only. Continuing to respond to users' desire for clean, inexpensive power, the Soviet Union has accelerated an upgrade of its historic Chernobyl plant . . .
   The company denies, by the way, that its technical-support people have formal instructions never to say "bug." However, the phrase "known issue" is preferred, a spokesman said, "due to the complex nature of the word 'bug.' " This is what happens when you get too comfortable with Microspeak -- known issue seems simple, while bug seems complex. It is what Orwell saw as language of orthodoxy, of concealment, of the party line.
   "A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology," he wrote, "has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine."


By way of follow-up, let me just note that Microsoft is now trying to protect its right to "innovate."


Copyright 1997 James Gleick

First published in the New York Times Magazine 15 June 1997