Consumer Products: When Software Bugs Bite

By Deborah Gage Print this article Print

Dishwashers, automobiles and other products are increasingly driven by software. But digits don't always do a better job. Where do you turn when your appliance's software goes south?

Maurice Bailey's Miele G885 SC dishwasher cleans dishes almost as well as a human being. Its 10 separate programs control the washing and drying of fine crystal and crusty pans. Its electronic controls warn owners if the drain is blocked. It also carefully regulates both the temperature and the consumption of water, something humans often neglect to do.

PDF Download Mechanically, the dishwasher has never failed. But it was rendered useless after a power outage. Its software got knocked out. Bailey pored over the manual and then spent half an hour on the phone with customer service. Finally, Miele sent a technician to his house to reboot Bailey's dishwasher.

"Software is so pervasive," says Bailey, a general partner in the Bailey Group, which provides consulting services to technology companies. "This is a great product when it works. But I think this dishwasher is symptomatic of issues we are not aware of."

Miele declines comment. But many companies are exploring the potential of software to improve products by making them more durable. Software replaces knobs that break and mechanical parts that wear out, and it allows customers to fix and add features without buying a new machine. Software updates can be delivered to customers over the Web.

However, software lags hardware as a reliable component of products. And, analysts say, unless companies do a better job of testing and developing software, problems like Bailey's will likely get worse. Several analyst firms—including Patricia Seybold Group, ZapThink, and Venture Development Corp.—blame the technology industry itself, which is loosely regulated and tends to rush products to market to try to gain market share.

Consider BMW and its luxury 745i sedan. First released in Europe in November of 2001, the car contains around 70 microprocessors. Its most striking feature, iDrive, is what Car and Driver magazine classifies as a "miracle knob." This single element of the dashboard is designed, through a computerized console, to replace more than 200 buttons that control everything from the position of seats to aspects of the navigation of the car itself to climate, communications and entertainment systems.

The iDrive is powered in part by the stripped down version of Microsoft's operating system for personal computers known as Windows CE. Theoretically, Beemer drivers can adjust anything, move forward and not take their eyes off the road. But that assumes that iDrive is working.

This article was originally published on 2003-01-16
Senior Writer
Based in Silicon Valley, Debbie was a founding member of Ziff Davis Media's Sm@rt Partner, where she developed investigative projects and wrote a column on start-ups. She has covered the high-tech industry since 1994 and has also worked for Minnesota Public Radio, covering state politics. She has written freelance op-ed pieces on public education for the San Jose Mercury News, and has also won several national awards for her work co-producing a documentary. She has a B.A. from Minnesota State University.

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