Good enough then?

Bill Gates has done us a disservice. He's also done us a favour. Depends on your point of view. It was Microsoft that ended the long-held belief that you couldn't sell something that didn't work exactly as advertised.

Microsoft ended the search for the holy grail of bug-free software by making a business judgement. You can get 90 per cent bug-free code for a certain price and you'll pay that much again to get the code cleaned up to 95 per cent. Think double or quadruple to get the code totally bug-free.

While the rest of the industry was still chasing bug-free code and having to charge bucket loads of money for the result, Microsoft made the decision to start shipping code that was effectively bug-free to most users most of the time. At a fraction of its competitors' prices.

There's some reasonable logic operating here, from both a business perspective as well as an end-user perspective.

Most software in use today will not kill anybody if it doesn't work as advertised. If you are in the business of selling software that isn't involved in life-or-death decisions, nobody is really going to suffer too badly if they have to restart your damn program a couple of times a day.

Sure, they might take your name in vain and some might even switch to the opposition. But if your price is low enough, the opposition can't cut clean code for that price either. Windows 98 has several million lines of code. There isn't a company on the planet that could afford that investment on a one-off piece of custom software for internal use. So you put up with the glitches and the bugs because you picked it up for $150.

The disservice I'm talking about is that 'near enough is good enough' has now become the accepted mission statement of every software house in the world. It is now accepted wisdom that the code you buy will not be bug-free.

You expect that most things will do what you want but some things won't, and you'll just learn not to do that again.

And then the Internet came along. Now it seems this mantra has permeated the online crowd. Endless Web sites are full of spelling errors, typos, broken links, hideous graphics and stupid pointless marketing statements that nobody believes, even if they can understand them. Why, exactly, does a company think that it is OK to have a Web site that marks them as complete online cretins? Would these same companies hire a switchboard operator that told everyone to sod off and leave me alone? Would they have sales people who don't return calls and haven't a clue what they are selling? Perhaps they would, but at least they'd soon go out of business and stop bothering the rest of us.

Yet they'll present that message on their Web site, as if, somehow, people will say 'oh, it's only the Web site'. Wrong. The Web site is the most public face of your business. People could be looking at your site when you are fast asleep. That was probably part of the pitch that got you to agree to the thing in the first place.

Well, I suggest you go and take another look at your own Web site. If it sucks, so do you. You don't need to be an expert to tell if your site sucks.

You might need an expert to tell you the difference between a really hot site and an absolutely fabulous site, but if it sucks, you'll know. Then you can get it fixed.

I've said it before, but building a Web site is not rocket science. Sure, building an "e-commerce site is a tad trickier, but there are precious few of those out there so far. Hire an 11-year-old if you can't afford one of the big name Websters. Don't forget that anyone that age doesn't regard the Internet as some new-fangled thing - it was already there when they were born. For them, the Internet is a given, and they will expect that everything they do in their lives will be augmented by the Web, in the same way that you never think about the telephone. For them there was no Cold War and there has only ever been one pope. The young are not constrained by history or memories of the bad old days. And your Web site shouldn't be governed by what has gone before, either.

Web sites in general are not so complicated that you can't test everything on the site yourself. But you'll have to break through the current mantra and come up with a new mission statement that won't leave you embarrassed at the next meeting of the online style-meisters. 'Near enough is good enough' won't cut it. Perhaps 'good enough is near enough' will suffice.

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Ian Yates

PC World
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