opinion


Shrugging off the bugs: exploring consumer complacency

System Failure - Infographical Concept. Graphic design on the theme of Microelectronics Technology.

From time to time, Telecoms.com invites third party experts to discuss some of the big challenges facing today’s industry. In this post, Dean Anthony Gratton discusses modern consumer tolerance of a buggy and inconsistent user experience.

I have often been described as a seasoned or veteran engineer – well, I mean, in terms of software engineering and all things wireless and telecommunications, as well as the Internet of Things (IoT). Ordinarily, when I hear such an adjective used to sum up my many years in the industry, I automatically associate myself with being ‘old’. Humph!

What happened to good software development?

So, here’s the truth: I have for the best part of 20 years developed embedded software for a variety of processors and then delved into writing Microsoft Windows device drivers – the oddest black art experience, as you can only imagine – but I did it all so well (just saying). More recently, I have moved into software or solution architecting, increasingly ‘blueprinting’ the future of what technology is and ultimately what it should do.

Anyway, this month, I wanted to touch upon what I have increasingly witnessed with today’s consumer electronic products. The nonchalant perception of good software development, in my perception, has totally left the building. I, quite frankly, despair at the products that are commercially available where consumers have dipped into their respective pockets and paid good cash for a gadget that is, all too often, buggy. Yet, it has seemingly become tolerated to experience a product that systematically crashes or simply does not perform as intended!

Being held at gun point because your software is buggy!

I just don’t understand this kind of tolerance. If I had developed software in the same manner, I would unequivocally have been sacked, which brings me nicely on to my very first software engineering role based in Cardiff, South Wales and a story that very nearly led to such a dismissal.

I was writing software for the gaming industry; in particular, for Amusement With Payout (AWP) and Skill With Payout (SWP) machines for the United Kingdom, Europe, Africa, and Russia. It was a time that was so rewarding, since I experienced some of my crazy notions mature into real products. I’m not perfect and my first engineering role was nothing more than a steep learning curve, but one of my notable and subtle bugs resulted in the Chair of the company being held at gunpoint in Russia.

I spent several days sifting through my source code realizing that the fraction of a fraction of a fraction was causing a miscalculation in the jackpot prize which, by the way, occurred over a year! Let’s just say that the Chair escaped unscathed, made a safe return back to base, and was too exhausted and relieved to be angry, much to my relief.

Let’s wait for the patch to arrive

Oh, and the excitement over “fake bugs,” known as Manufactured Malfunctioning Features (MMFs). It was a craze in the early 1990s to write gaming machines that appeared to be faulty. I would write software that gave the impression to the player that the game was defective, but it was all part of the gambling experience. It seemed like a marvellous idea at the time, but it all backfired, as bars, clubs, and other venues were returning the machines to the operators, as they too saw the games as flawed.

It was my duty and responsibility to ensure that the software was fixed and patched so that the Chair could return home safely. But all too often, I see consumer electronic products and operating systems, for that matter, just ‘crash’ and we have all come to accept it. We have nowadays comfortably entered a cycle of, “Let’s wait for the patch to arrive”.

Until next time…

With a very recent example, No Man’s Sky – the hotly hyped game that was continually delayed, has been reported, since its release, to have several glitches. It amazes me that despite the delay on top of a four-year development cycle (which you would have thought would have ensured its final release was flawless) many of us in the industry accept that it’s okay to await a patch to resolve these issues – seriously?

If you have an embedded product for example, such as a TV, broadband router, a wireless headset or similar device where the user experience is limited to a series of flashing LEDs, then we are more likely to shrug it off and simply mutter quite confused, “That was weird”. You see, as consumers, we don’t have to tolerate such a lackadaisical attitude towards software development. I will often await a second release or at least a major update to the software or a product prior to committing to purchase but, alas, I am guilty of purchasing No Man’s Sky as soon as it was released and I do, as a result, experience the glitches on my PC.

So, this is where a ‘how the hell do I start my ship in No Man’s Sky?’ Dr G signs off.

grattonboy-with-fedora(social-media)Dr Dean Anthony Gratton is a bestselling author and columnist, and has worked extensively within the wireless communications R&D industry. His wireless research work has been patented. You can contact Dean via his website, and follow him on Twitter (@grattonboy) to enjoy his risqué humour, witty shenanigans, social media and technology-related tweets. You can also read more about his work at deangratton.com.

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