InfoShok: Alpha, Beta, Gamma

  1. Do Not Bend, Fold, Spindle, or Mutilate
  2. InfoShok
  3. American Intifada

“If the auto industry were like the computer industry, a car would now cost $5, would get 5,000 miles to the gallon, and at random times would explode, killing all its passengers.” -- John Chambers

In computer software, there’s something called ‘beta-testing’. In theory, this is where the bugs--the errors in programming--are supposed to be worked out.

It rarely works; there are almost always some bugs left, and for some customers these bugs will cause serious problems.

The introduction of the Pentium was the first serious ‘bug’ in mass-produced computer hardware. The math error in that chip meant that many researchers had to recalculate months of work. Papers that had been about to go to press in academic journals were sent back for recalculation. Even though the error was extremely rare, nobody could know if it had happened to them until they re-checked their data--and with a different computer. Intel acknowledged no liability for the instance, although they did eventually relent and allow trade-ins. Originally, they didn’t even want to let scientists trade in old chips for new, presumably error-free chips.

Most software includes a ‘warranty’ which states something to the effect of:

Warranty. If you discover physical defects in the media on which this software is distributed, or in the manual distributed with the software, DeltaPoint, Inc. will replace the media or manual at no charge to you, provided you return the item to be replaced, postage prepaid, with proof of purchase to DeltaPoint, Inc. during the 90-day period after you purchased the product. (?)

The “media on which this software is distributed” is the floppy disk, a one dollar item. At approximately fifty dollars for the software package in question, that’s a pretty expensive disk. The disk is the container for the software. If you want to use the software, you have to take it off the disk and put it onto your computer. If the warranty were transferred to refrigerators, only the box the fridge came in would be warranted--and if you wanted the box replaced, you would have to pay to send the old box back.

There is no guarantee that the software does what it is supposed to do, and in some cases, “what it is supposed to do” is explicitly unwarranted. In the above warranty, they warrant the “manual”. The manual is the instructions for how to use the software. It describes what the software is supposed to do. If you discover that the software doesn’t perform as described, it’s the manual that is defective. The company will presumably be happy to send you a new manual that describes in detail exactly how the program crashes when you try and make it do what you thought it was supposed to help you with.

This is probably one of the better software warranties out there. Most places won’t even warrant that the manual describes the software correctly.

One of the most important pieces of software that I use at the University is Retrospect, from Dantz Software. It is generally supposed to be one of the best, if not the best, “backup” packages, for keeping archival copies of our computer data. It also comes with the following warranty:

Dantz makes no warranty or representation, either express or implied, with respect to Retrospect software, its quality, performance, merchantability, or fitness for a particular purpose. As a result, retrospect is licensed “as is,” and you the licensee are assuming the entire risk as to its quality and performance.

The last time I bought something “as is”, I paid $450 for a ‘64 Buick Lesabre. This was just before my sophomore year of college, and all it needed to do was get me from Michigan to New York. Retrospect is our backup software at USD. If lightning strikes our Macintoshes, we are relying on Retrospect to restore our letters, files, data, fliers, manuals, and everything else a computing department stores on its computers, completely intact. One would hope that it is more reliable than my college Buick. Especially since it cost nearly as much.

Banner Blue Software, makers of the Family Tree Maker software package actually goes so far as to warrant “that the software substantially conforms to the manual and published specifications.” This is without question a far better warranty than most other computer software packages (it’s also a far better program than most other packages, in my opinion), but it’s still wishy-washy, like saying that your new refrigerator will often but not always keep your food cold.

We’re still in the age of the experimenter, and the public that buys a piece of computer software or hardware is part of the experimenter’s design process. You are expected to report any problems and help track them down. We’re still in the era of the Stanley Steamer. We haven’t yet entered the 1930s, when an editorial spoke of the new motor cars:

Today there is no room for the cheap and shoddy, or for immature design. The day has passed when un-mechanical contraptions can claim the serious attention of the public... manufacturers no longer expect the public to carry out the testing of new productions for them. (?)

We desperately need to stop expecting the public to test our new products in the software industry.

Last year, at the 1994 Meckler’s Internet World in San Francisco, I picked up a ‘free try-out’ for a commercial computer network called America On-Line. They give you special software to use when connecting to their central computers. My computer crashed often when I was using this software; sometimes it was quite annoyingly reproducible. One night, no matter how many times I tried, every time I attempted to read about comic books the software crashed abruptly. Perhaps it was simply attempting to instill a sense of good taste, but at the time I didn’t see the humor (so to speak). I popped off a message to the people in charge. Their response was to tell me to strip my computer to the bone (except for their software, of course), and then start adding stuff back in until their software crashed.

I seriously considered doing that. It would have wasted hours, if not days, and would not have guaranteed any results. Even if I were to find the problem, and it was an unimportant piece of software, what if the next bit of software I purchased conflicted with America On-Line in the same way? I came to my senses, and my reply was to cancel the trial membership. When I was younger, I probably would have gone along with it. Now I’m thirty and an old grouch. Thirty is ancient in the computer world. I’m no longer even eligible for a job at Microsoft--except perhaps in management.

The idea of letting the customer discover the errors in our programs will become less and less palatable as the customer becomes less and less sophisticated. America On-Line, for example, is specifically targeting the less computer-literate markets, and they’re doing a good job of it. Their ‘computer interface’ is the easiest I’ve seen--when it works. But asking computer-illiterate customers to tinker with their computers is asking for trouble. These novice users may break something they can’t fix, and then they’ll rightly blame America On-Line for asking them to tinker with their computer in the first place.

America On-Line Update

A month or so after that, I received a package in the mail. America On-Line had re-tooled their software, and they sent me a new trial package. I popped the disk into my computer, told it to “install” the software... and waited five minutes just to have it tell me there was something wrong with the disk, and I ought to call customer service.

I ignored it.

And, a third time, received a “key to the future” mailing from America On-Line. “Dazzling books”, it entices, and “your simplified guide to the Internet”, which also includes “educational stuff for kids”. Yeah, no question about it, the Internet is an educational experience for kids. Unlock the future right now. Open and try your new software right now!

I’m a sucker for free gifts, but not that much of a sucker. The “free disk” sits on my desk for a week before I pop it into the computer. I’m waiting for a weekend, because I don’t want it to crash my computer when I haven’t got time to fix it. So at noon, May 6, 1995, I start the third installation of America On-Line. (Although the disk still says “Version 2.0”, which is what the second installation said. Maybe they forgot to update the disk label?)

I double-click on the “Setup” program, and as I’m waiting for it to figure out how best to trash my memory, I notice that their logo is the “eye in the pyramid” of Illuminati fame, and wonder if the programmer’s name is Weisshaupt. Sure enough, three seconds into the installation, up pops the message “Cannot write file C:\AOL20\IMGLIB.DLL”. This is somewhat more informative than the previous error, which said nothing, but what am I supposed to do with it? Call up the listed telephone number and let some computer software nerd tell me how to change my computer to overcome the glitches in their software? Thanks, but I’ll pass.

But I’m getting kind of annoyed by the whole thing. I want to get this working so I can rag on it in print some more. So I delete the directories and files it created before it quit so politely, and double-click the install again.

This time, the computer freezes, and when I try to reboot I get the message

The system is either busy or has become unstable. You can wait and see if the system becomes available again and continue working or you can restart your computer.

I reboot. I don’t wait on computers anymore.


At least I received lots of free disks out of the deal. America On-Line does not give up. I’ve since received at least three other “free trial” disks. They work great if I erase the America On-Line software and use them to store my own data.

Part of the problem is that the people marketing the software aren’t necessarily the people who wrote the software. America On-Line, for example, purchased their web browser from someone else. Who at America On-Line knows how to fix it?

The Unix operating system is perhaps the most blatant example. Unix is the majority operating system on the Internet. It was written two decades ago, and has been updated by scores of volunteers, and by the employees of a dozen companies. No one knows how to fix that, either.

It’s the same with any software that’s been around for more than a year. Part of it was written by current employees, part by past employees, and often the major part by people the company never knew. It’s not always a bad thing. Some of these anonymous volunteers are pretty damn good. But it obviously leads to problems at User Support.

We’re still at the point where even owning a computer means you’ll eventually have to know how to tear it apart and put it back together.

Jesus claimed he could do it in three days, but computers were much more primitive under the Romans.

We worship the temple of the computer, but our high priests don’t trust it. We’re going to need a little more faith on their part before we start trusting computers and the net with things more important than Forum stories and letters to mom. If your banking software loses your paycheck en route, you’re not going to be satisfied that the $1 floppy disk the software came on is still okay.

Computer Crash

The computers themselves aren’t infallible either: computer manufacturers will need to make their products much more reliable before we rely on them as much as we do our answering machines.

How would you feel if you were to come home from vacation to discover that your answering machine had broken the moment you left home? Personal computers “crash” at a phenomenal rate. A “crash” is when the computer itself stops working. All the software that was working on the computer stops working, and it doesn’t start working again until the owner comes in, turns the computer off, and turns it back on again. As often as not, the owner doesn’t have to come in, because they were working on an important project at the time, and lost an hour of work.

People who own personal computers feel they’re doing okay if their computer only crashes once a week or so, and that’s only turning their computer on for a few hours a day. When we live on the infobahn, we’ll be leaving our computers turned on forever. A “crash” will be the social equivalent of “temporarily” losing our car or our home. Sure, it’ll be easier to fix, but we’ll be lost while it’s broken.

Computer manufacturers need to make sure that computers don’t crash any more than our answering machines do--or that, if they do crash, we don’t notice it.

America On-Line Repeated

I eventually did make it onto America On-Line. When their “version number” made it up to “2.5” from “2.0”, I figured, what the hell. If I crash it, it’s just an IBM. My real work, by then, was on the Macintosh.

The most exciting thing that happened to me before I canceled was getting propositioned by a live action role-player from Fort Huachuca and someone named “John” at the Ramada.

It had something to do with my choice of username; I chose “Stinz”, because I didn’t want anyone I knew seeing “Jerry Stratton” on America On-Line.

Subj: How about some fun and excitement?
Date: 95-08-05 17:29:56 EDT
To: Stinz

My name is John and I’m on travel here in Sierra Vista..I’m staying at the Ramada, Room 255.. How about us getting together for some fun (DINING, DANCING ETC.)? Give me a call or send me an email...

See you soon,


Dining, Dancing, Etc? And in all-caps, too? It was almost enough to keep me on-line.

  1. From the warranty for DeltaPoint, Inc.’s Freeze Frame for Windows. Delta Point actually has quite a liberal licensing policy; most software can only be used on one computer. The Freeze Frame license allows it to be used on any number of computers, as long as only one person uses it.
  2. As quoted in The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Automobiles, by David Burgess Wise, p. 28.
  1. Do Not Bend, Fold, Spindle, or Mutilate
  2. InfoShok
  3. American Intifada