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Repeat after me: 'Beta' means buggy
technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
Simple gray rule

Repeat after me: 'Beta' means buggy

Technofile for Jan. 31, 1999

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1999, The Syracuse Newspapers

The Internet has made fools of us all.

Where once we were cautious about what we installed on our computers, now we merrily grab the latest test versions of anything that comes along. We might have second thoughts if the software comes from the kid down the block or from some company we've never heard of. But we're first in line to give Microsoft or Netscape or AOL a chance to fry our hard drives with something they're not finished working on.

That's crazy, isn't it? What's happened to our brains? We just don't get the message when it comes to beta software.

If you don't know what "beta" means, let me explain. People who create software programs—big guys like Microsoft and little fries like the 14-year-old next door—sometimes need help getting the bugs out. Notice that I didn't say they need help "testing" their software. Testing is easy. Getting the bugs out is hard.

And how do you get the bugs out? Here's where I can speak from experience. I've written a lot of software, and I can testify to the One Big Truth About Bugs: The people who create software are never able to find the bugs. They just don't know how to find them. (A guy I know once found a big bug in a program I wrote by pressing the Esc key when a message on the screen told him to press the Enter key. I would never have done that—and would never have found that bug myself.)

So the people who create the software need somebody else to find the bugs. They need two different kinds of bug-finders, in fact. They need someone who wants to crash the software and does everything possible to make it misbehave. (Usually, those are your co-workers, the ones who don't like the fact that you got promoted and they didn't.) And they need someone who just plain stumbles and bumbles along—someone like you and me. The stumble-bumblers will be the ones who press Esc when the message clearly says "Enter," who shut the program down when it's doing something important.

And most importantly, the stumble-bumblers, the folks who didn't write the software, are the ones who will do all the things that the programmers and the in-house beta testers would not dare to try. They'll actually expect a mail program to go out and get the mail, no matter what. (A popular Microsoft e-mail program nearly always crashes when you exit the program and then run it again in a few seconds. Programmers know it does this and so do their cubicle-next-door testers. and they just forgive the software and never pay attention to the problem—hardly a good way to test and fix bugs, right? But life is like that. You forgive things you know you can't fix. How many times have you ignored your barking dog while the neighbors went bonkers from the noise?

Programmers are no different. They just turn off their sensitivity to what's really wrong with their software. So folks like you and me, the stumblers and bumblers, are ideal bug finders. We don't care. We just stick one foot in front of the other. Or try to.)

That sounds romantic. But get rid of the violins and roses, because finding bugs means LIVING with bugs. A true beta tester stops right there. "Hello, Mary. Found a bug! I'm sending an example off to you. Bye!" But stumble-bums like you and me are different. Hoo-boy, are we different. We find a bug and try to fix it ourselves. Or we find a bug and think it's not a bug, so we blame something we did. Or—rats, I wish I didn't have to say this—we find a bug and get so upset that we fire off a couple of e-mails to a newspaper columnist and tell HIM to come up with a fix.

All of which points to a lesson. It has two parts.

First, don't be a bug finder unless you're paid to do it. Stumble-bumble all you want, but do it for money. Microsoft would love to hire you. Tell Bill I sent you.

Second, don't complain to me when your SuperSchlock WebDoodle Blaster, beta version .003.2, turns your hard drive into oozing molasses. Get hold of the folks who put the bugs into the program in the first place. And tell 'em I said hello.

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