Howardism Musings from my Awakening Dementia
My collected thoughts flamed by hubris
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Indeed. I think a lot of the lack of quality simply comes from the quest for the fast buck$. There was a time in America when people put their names to their product. Your name is the most important thing in your life. Think about it; when someone says your name, what image is invoked? Are you trustworthy? A liar? Prone to be late? Your name is all these things and more. Your name is you. Now, when a new music band produces an album, the first album is usually the best. They've had a lot of time to think about it and they produce the music they think is killer. They wrote it for themselves really and they're proud of it. They work on it in the studio until they get it right. But look at a band that has 4 or 5 albums under their belts. They brag they knocked it out in 18 hours (a double album no less). When you listen, you hear weak lyrics and instrumental mistakes.

So, this comes full circle to a product with a name. Peterbuilt, Kenworth, Hughes Aircraft company. The trouble is, quality costs money (it doesn't have to) and the cheaper ones take over. Can you by anything not made in China anymore? Why buy apples at $2.00 lb when you can buy apples from Argentina for $1.50? So the names that started with quality, with people who cared about their name, and therefore their product, eventually either have to cheapen out, or go out of business. Software is designed by too many people with too many constraints. You have to be the first to market to establish a foothold. Even if someone comes out with a better product, you're "working on a better one". Since you were first, you're perceived as the most mature. Hey, I'm an expert now because I'm published on wiki!

Anyway, I could ramble on about this for another couple of pages, but these are my thoughts.


Quality of Software

Partly due to some experiences at work, and partly due to what I've been reading lately, I've been thinking of quality and how it relates to software development (even attempted a personal definition).

In looking over my past interaction with various software programs and systems, it is clear that some had quality and some didn't. It wasn't always the user interface, or the lack of bugs, it was these and more.

Robert M. Pirsig in his book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance may have articulated this sense best when he discussed the concept of an identity between the object (the program), the creator (the programmer) and the owner (the user of the program). He said:

It is this identity that is the basis of craftsmanship in all the technical arts. And it is this identity that modern, dualistically conceived technology lacks. The creator of it feels no particular sense of identity with it. The owner of it feels no particular sense of identity with it. The user of it feels no particular sense of identity with it. Hence, by [my] definition, it has no Quality.

In reading about the success of Apple's iPod, an article talked about how owners gave their iPod's names, and treated them like pets and noted the vibrations from the hard drives instilled in their owners, a sense of life.

I don't know about the aliveness of an iPod, but clearly this identity is due to quality their owners recognize. While some would call it a legacy, it is true that Apple has created quite a few products of quality (but certainly not all of them live up to that).

In order for a product to have quality, its creators must have a craftsmanship-like level of care for every aspect of it. For a poor user interface, lack of security considerations, and just plain o' bugs, can become huge cracks to demonstrate the lack of quality.

Why is this important? Well, without that level of care, the owner will not identify with the product, and without that, there will be less future purchases, no word-of-mouth advertising to other potential customers, bad publicity, etc. Without quality, a company can be doomed over the long haul.

Since pointing about Apple as an example, I may have to mention other examples for completeness. Take Linux, for example. While the Linux kernel certainly has a lot of quality, the quality of the entire system can be spotty, since there is a lot of software surrounding it that isn't at the same level. When I use a Linux distribution as my desktop, I get quite frustrated with trying to remember which programs use "Control-C" to copy, and which ones use "Shift-Control-C" and which ones use "Control-Insert". I guess consistency is another feature that demonstrates quality, but I digress into the details.

What about the software dominancy of the Windows operating system, you ask. Doesn't that demonstrate quality? Perhaps. But the popularity of the crap that Wal-Mart peddles doesn't seem to evoke quality either. Pirsig echoed these sentiments by noting America's attachment to bling-bling (I believe he used the colloquial term, stylize). We often settle for things of lower quality, and then complain about them, and often we buy the upgrade thinking that it will be better and easier than changing brands. And mostly, that is correct.

But it shouldn't stop us from searching, demanding, and acquiring quality. Why? Pirsig said it best when he used the term peace of mind. When Microsoft Word crashes, and you lost the last few minutes of inspiration added after the last automatic backup, you loose the tranquility necessary to regain that loss.

Another Pirsig quote:

It's an unconventional concept,… but conventional reason bears it out. The material object of observation, the bicycle or rotisserie, can't be wrong. Molecules are molecules. They don't have any ethical codes to follow except those people give them. The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn't any other test. If the machine produces tranquility it's right. If it disturbs you it's wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed. The test of the machine's always your own mind. There isn't any other test.

After discussing these ideas with a friend of mine over lunch (who just happens to be a Quality Assurance Engineer), he said that his boss taught him the balance between cost and quality. Since one can never fix all bugs, and that every bug fixed cost a certain amount in terms of engineering time, etc., it is necessary to draw a line.

Where that line is drawn is the difference between the Kias and the BMWs. While every car has problems, the line for a BMW is drawn higher, and this ends up costing the customer more. However, some customers will pay more for higher quality.

The mass of people don't demand quality products. Hell, they don't even demand quality from themselves-- but some do. And personally, I would rather have something of higher quality, and I'll pay more for it.

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