Software That Doesn't Work

Anyone who has tried to install software on a PC knows how frustrating it can be. Indeed, complex and buggy software costs Corporate America up to $85 billion a year. In recent months, Procter & Gamble, Hershey Foods, Whirlpool, eBay, Ameritrade, and others have found themselves in software hell. The government too, has suffered from stinky software, with the Federal Aviation Administration, IRS, and Social Security among the bureaucracies getting clobbered.

There was a time, decades ago, when companies could rely on glitch-free software supplied by mainframe computer makers. But with the PC revolution, simplicity gave way to complexity. The configuring of many kinds of systems, the loading up of features, and the speed with which it is rushed to the marketplace have combined to produce crash-prone software. The interconnectedness of the Net makes it worse: Good software is no longer isolated from viruses or bugs.

There are solutions to software problems. The success of the Linux operating system shows that systems are improved when programmers around the world are allowed to test and debug them constantly. The National Science Foundation is working to create software modules that can be combined with artificial intelligence agents to build complex software. And software writers themselves can start asking consumers just what features they really want. The Palm's great success, after all, is due to doing a few things very well.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.