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It’s one of the oldest jokes on the Internet, endlessly forwarded from e-mailbox to e-mailbox. A software mogul-usually Bill Gates, but sometimes another-makes a speech. “If the automobile industry had developed like the software industry,” the mogul proclaims, “we would all be driving $25 cars that get 1,000 miles to the gallon.” To which an automobile executive retorts, “Yeah, and if cars were like software, they would crash twice a day for no reason, and when you called for service, they’d tell you to reinstall the engine.”

The joke encapsulates one of the great puzzles of contemporary technology. In an amazingly short time, software has become critical to almost every aspect of modern life. From bank vaults to city stoplights, from telephone networks to DVD players, from automobile air bags to air traffic control systems, the world around us is regulated by code. Yet much software simply doesn’t work reliably: ask anyone who has watched a computer screen flush blue, wiping out hours of effort. All too often, software engineers say, code is bloated, ugly, inefficient and poorly designed; even when programs do function correctly, users find them too hard to understand. Groaning beneath the weight of bricklike manuals, bookstore shelves across the nation testify to the perduring dysfunctionality of software.

“Software’s simply terrible today,” says Watts S. Humphrey, a fellow of Carnegie Mellon University’s Software Engineering Institute who has written several well-known books on software quality. “And it’s getting worse all the time.” Good software, in Humphrey’s view, “is usable, reliable, defect free, cost effective and maintainable. And software now is none of those things. You can’t take something out of the box and know it’s going to work.” Over the years, in the view of Edsger W. Dijkstra, an emeritus computer scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, the average computer user “has been served so poorly that he expects his system to crash all the time, and we witness a massive worldwide distribution of bug-ridden software for which we should be deeply ashamed.”

Jim McCarthy is more generous. The founder, with his wife Michele, of a software quality training company in Woodinville, WA, McCarthy believes that “most software products have the necessary features to be worth buying and using and adopting.” But, he allows, “only the extreme usefulness of software lets us tolerate its huge deficiencies.” McCarthy sometimes begins talks at his school with a PowerPoint presentation. The first slide reads, “Most Software Sucks.”

It is difficult to overemphasize the uniqueness of software’s problems. When automotive engineers discuss the cars on the market, they don’t say that vehicles today are no better than they were ten or fifteen years ago. The same is true for aeronautical engineers: nobody claims that Boeing or Airbus makes lousy planes. Nor do electrical engineers complain that chips and circuitry aren’t improving. As the engineering historian Henry Petroski suggested in his 1992 book The Evolution of Useful Things, continual refinement is the usual rule in technology. Engineers constantly notice shortcomings in their designs and fix them little by little, a process Petroski wryly described as “form follows failure.” As a result, products incrementally improve.

Software, alas, seems different. One would expect a 45-million-line program like Windows XP, Microsoft’s newest operating system, to have a few bugs. And software engineering is a newer discipline than mechanical or electrical engineering; the first real programs were created only 50 years ago. But what’s surprising-astonishing, in fact-is that many software engineers believe that software quality is not improving. If anything, they say, it’s getting worse. It’s as if the cars Detroit produced in 2002 were less reliable than those built in 1982.

As software becomes increasingly important, the potential impact of bad code will increase to match, in the view of Peter G. Neumann, a computer scientist at SRI International, a private R&D center in Menlo Park, CA. In the last 15 years alone, software defects have wrecked a European satellite launch, delayed the opening of the hugely expensive Denver airport for a year, destroyed a NASA Mars mission, killed four marines in a helicopter crash, induced a U.S. Navy ship to destroy a civilian airliner, and shut down ambulance systems in London, leading to as many as 30 deaths. And because of our growing dependence on the Net, Neumann says, “We’re much worse off than we were five years ago. The risks are worse and the defenses are not as good. We’re going backwards-and that’s a scary thing.”

Some software companies are responding to these criticisms by revamping their procedures; Microsoft, stung by charges that its products are buggy, is publicly leading the way. Yet problems with software quality have endured so long, and seem so intractably embedded in software culture, that some coders are beginning to think the unthinkable. To their own amazement, these people have found themselves wondering if the real problem with software is that not enough lawyers are involved.

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