Software Industry Faces Growing Problem

Article excerpt

By Joshua Mills

N.Y. Times News Service

Hel-l-l-p-p-p!

You've gone software shopping and splurged on a half-dozen programs, including games and learning programs you hope will lure your children from the tube, and some tools for your correspondence and home finances.

Now, sitting at home, you can't seem to get any of them to work right.

You load a CD-ROM and type "D:/install." Your computer responds, "Cannot find file." How can this be, you wonder. The CD-ROM you installed yesterday worked just fine.

You are not alone. As software companies try to produce ever-more-wondrous programs, consumers' problems with installing or using software are growing, too, largely because the computer industry has stubbornly turned its back on setting universal standards.

How bad is it? The industry can't even agree on what command to use to install a new program. Many programs require the user to type "install," while many others insist on "setup."

"The personal computer is not a toaster yet, where you just plug it in and it works fine," acknowledged David Trembly, research director for the Software Publishers Association, an industry group in Washington.

Stores do not disclose how much software is returned or exchanged because customers can't get it to work, and the industry, which closely tracks sales, maintains that it has never measured how widespread the problem is.

But people who review software estimate that they encounter problems in roughly a quarter of what they test, even more with CD-ROM programs. In 1994, problems turned up not just in dozens of children's programs but in many others, including best sellers like Word 6.0, Excel 5.0 and Flight Simulator 5.0 (all from Microsoft), in Norton Desktop 3.0 for Windows (Symantec) and cc:Mail and 1-2-3 for OS/2 (both from Lotus Development).

Sometimes, the problem is a program that is rushed to market without adequate testing; sometimes extensive testing fails to turn up a bug that shows up until someone uses it at home. More often, software experts say, the problem is incompatibility: the software will not work with the hardware and software already in the machine.

"The percentage that's actually defective is minuscule," said Jeffrey Tarter, who publishes Softletter, an industry newsletter, in Watertown, Mass. "A large part of the problem is the hardware market. There's literally no way a software company can test all the permutations of hardware with its product."

So consumers suffer, waiting on hold as they dial for technical help and trying to translate on-screen messages like "EMM386 has detected error (NU)06 in an application at memory address 00B8:0B79."

The vast majority of software problems involve either producing sound or creating images on screen. …