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Y2K, Redux

No more excuses for 'buggy' tech products

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I didn't write much about the dreaded Y2K computer bug last year. Frankly, I didn't know what to make of it, other than sheer disgust at the shortsightedness of our hallowed computer industry.

Yes, I suspected companies were overhyping the "millennium (sic) bug" to sell "fixes." I wasn't worried -- I stocked Moet Chandon instead of water -- but I sure as hell wasn't going to tell anyone else not to fear the bug. I didn't want to be one of those cultists scrambling on New Year's Day to explain why their predictions were dead wrong and the world's computers, indeed, were buzzing along just fine (and God stayed home). I'm not fond of Crow L'orange.

Now, the Monday-morning quarterbacking. Many computer professionals are taking credit for the uneventful stroke of midnight. Other people are crying "Hype!" especially considering that poorer countries without all our silicon wizardry fared just fine as well. Still others are saying that the Y2K pricetag is "good" for the United States economy (tell that to a cash-strapped small business). "American businesses and governments that spent an estimated $100 billion to upgrade their systems enhanced their ability to function and serve their customers," said a Jan. 3 New York Times editorial.

That's probably true to some extent, although probably not $100 billion worth. But you can't blame the U.S. for justifying its excessive tendencies -- this is, after all, a country full of folks who lug cases of Cheetos from Sam's Club in bloated, luxury SUVs home to their sprawling suburban homes. We like to throw money in questionable places. We consume, and we're damned proud of it.

Besides, the Y2K apologists say, we all learned "that computers and software must be more carefully managed as information technology becomes more pervasive," as stated by a Times news story in the first real no-shitter statement of the new year. This would have been even more true had major Y2K problems actually occurred.

Think back on the Y2K hype: This "bug" resulted from technology companies marketing and selling bad, shortsighted products to individuals, businesses and governments. Individual programmers certainly designed them poorly (purposefully or not), but companies recklessly sold them with embedded problems and despite warnings that the products might go kaput on Dec. 31, 1999. Imagine if your SUV had the same bug: You'd ask for a refund or repair, not pay for expensive fixes.

But the enterprising technology industry made a mint off its own mistakes. Thus, the real lesson: We must stop giving those guys a free pass because they are marketing something new and cool. In fact, Washington tried to do just the opposite -- Congress for months debated and then passed legislation to limit liability for Y2K-related problems and, thus, screw consumers. Fortunately, it looks like this legislation -- which drew way too many taxpayer-funded debate hours -- was unneeded overkill.

Computers are no longer a fun tinkerers' game. The days are long gone when nerds tackled computer bugs for fun -- the more, the better. Now, much of the world depends on technology for our livelihood, communications and basic human needs (like water and lights). Like other industries, technology companies must take responsibility for delivering working products on schedule.

We the consumer must demand quality products. We sure shouldn't be expected to pay for any fixes (including Microsoft "updates" like Windows 98, Second Edition -- the $99 bug fix). We deserve money-back guarantees. We need our service calls taken seriously, down to our local Internet service providers. One too many times, I've had a problem with my Internet connection during my workday, and an ISP service guy shrugged his shoulders in response. And we still hear horror stories about America Online, or Apple, or Microsoft not responding to customer complaints (AOL overcharged me a month two years ago, and I still haven't seen the refund).

This arrogance is simply unacceptable: Even if companies cannot fix problems on the spot, they must take customers seriously and not treat us as inconvenienced Doom players. We need working products, not excuses.

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