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James E. Powell
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Ship Now, Fix Later
The immediacy of the Web forces vendors to release products-ready or not-to beat the competition to the punch.

Had a problem or two with your last software upgrade? So have we. In fact, we've seen so much substandard hardware and software lately that we may have to add a new how-to column called "Getting It to Work at All."

As a reviewer, I test lots of beta code, so I don't worry much when I run into the occasional defective product. But when 17 consecutive shrink-wrapped or "gold code" products failed to operate as promised, I knew it was more than an unusual streak of bad luck. Here's a sampling of the commercially released products that weren't quite ready for prime time:

-- a modem with nonworking drivers

-- a printer with incorrect drivers

-- a modem with a telephony app that cut off messages after 17 seconds

-- one of the first CDs (in a batch of 10,000) that was pressed from the wrong master

-- a shrink-wrapped package advertising a particular feature, without a warning on the box or in the documentation that the feature didn't make it into the final code

Even beta quality has dipped. Hastily assembled packages arrive with defective diskettes or missing instructions such as serial numbers for unlocking an installation procedure.

Has the computer industry been hit with an incompetence virus? Hardly. It's just giving in to a perceived sense of urgency to release products, ready or not. Posting a fix or preview on the Web is so cheap, even the little guy can distribute new, innovative software without investing a fortune. Trouble is, the Web has become a crutch to allow vendors to release products too early. Beta tests have evolved into flaky code available for instant download.

The immediacy of the Web, coupled with ever-shrinking product life cycles (six months for hardware and even less for software), forces vendors to release something-anything-to beat the competition to the punch. Too bad we users are the ones getting knocked out. The standard reply to complaints is: "We'll post a patch." No wonder Oil Change, an automated update download-and-install utility, is so popular. Developers are too busy creating fixes to produce error-free products.

The consumers' best line of defense used to be to avoid version 1.0, but now I'm seeing versions 2, 3 and 4 that are no better. And for the first time here at WinMag, we're removing products from our WinList when the shipping versions don't live up to the beta releases' promises.

You shouldn't accept these quality-control problems, either. If you're a corporate manager with thousands of PCs to update, bug fixes aren't mere inconveniences; they're nightmares.

I think we're about to witness the same revolution the automotive industry faced a few years back, when Japan grabbed market share from complacent American automakers. Now Ford and its neighbors in Detroit are finally realizing quality, not features, price or availability, must be "Job 1."

Until the revolution transpires, here's how to protect yourself:

-- Check our Notes from the Lab page for solutions to problems.

-- Don't be the first to buy the latest, and buy only from a retailer or a direct-mail vendor with a 30-day, full-money-back return policy. Refuse to pay restocking fees for buggy software.

-- Watch online service discussion groups to see what buyers are complaining about the most.

-- Before you commit to an upgrade, be sure it includes a feature you have to have. Otherwise, it's liable to cost you more in debugging time than it's worth.

The Web has made it possible to get the latest software and hardware drivers in minutes, not months or years. But the way developers are using it, they're taking years off our productivity, costing us money and trying our patience. The Web can't become an excuse for a lack of planning and careful execution. It's time to tell developers to slow down.

Contact Northwest Bureau editor James E. Powell in the WINDOWS Magazine areas on America Online and CompuServe, or care of the editor at the e-mail addresses here. Opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those held by WINDOWS Magazine.

Windows Magazine, July 1997, page 45.

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