Microsoft (News - Alert) announced Wednesday that the integration of Skype for Windows Phone 8 with People Hub would be disabled until device stability issues can be corrected in a future release. While the decision is an appropriate response to software bugs that made many phones crash, it raises questions about whether or not Microsoft and other software companies do enough testing before releasing updates to consumers.
The bug and subsequent workaround appeared on The Skype Community online support forum. One user expressed frustration likely shared by many users, when they said, “I hope MSFT & Skype treat this matter with the attention it deserves. This is a major issue, and it will cause customers like myself to jump over to iPhone (News - Alert).”
To Microsoft’s credit, they decided it was better to release the software without the integration and take the public relations hit than to include the heavily promoted feature and cause thousands of users to crash. Many software companies seem to have adopted the approach that the consumer marketplace is their beta test site. In a competitive market like the one for smartphones and apps, the pressure is high to get the product released before a competitor does. One of the casualties of this added pressure is software testing.
It used to be that beta testing was something that only a limited number of companies and individuals participated in. That practice changed in the 1990s with the Windows 95 beta. For the first time, a major software beta was available to the public for a nominal fee and many users took advantage of the opportunity.In theory, this seems like a good practice since it allows the software to go through millions of repetitions. The software company gets volumes of feedback in a shorter period of time from users in home and business environments where the software will get the most use once it’s in production. When combined with the concept of ‘good enough’ software, development and testing cycles become shorter. Software at its best is never perfect and development teams reach a point of diminishing returns if they try too hard to be perfect.
In reality, these testing concepts may have been debased to the point that it became easier to release buggy software. Acknowledging imperfection degrades into striving for less and since humans develop software, the tendency to perform at a lower level when given anything resembling a crutch increases. What used to pass for alpha quality software becomes beta, and what used to be beta quality goes into production.
Having to perform workarounds on your smartphone because Skype (News - Alert) would not integrate with People Hub is at the most, a major inconvenience. It certainly does not rise to the level of software bugs like the one at Panama’s National Cancer Institute back in 2000 that led to the deaths of more than 20 people after radiation dosages had been miscalculated.
Hopefully companies developing such critical software will subject it to more rigorous testing than smart phone apps get. Consumer software companies unfazed by customers’ threats to ‘jump’ to a competitor will continue to release software that is not good enough. Users who want reliable apps on their smartphones will be better served to wait for de facto beta testers to complete their work first.