Supporting software is a notoriously difficult and expensive business which is why most companies don't do it very well. It is always tempting to farm out the business to a third party, an approach that carries well-known risks but at least obviates the need to deal directly with the irritatingly ungrateful people who were stupid enough to buy your product. The other advantage of support by a third party is that it is usually cheaper, particularly if you use an offshore company to do the work for you. Mole can exclusively reveal that Microsoft is taking advantage of one of the cheapest support deals in history. Callers to a number used by the company are getting through to a little old lady on the Hebridean island of Grimsay whose telephone has been ringing off the hook. Sadly it turns out that this is not an example of world-class penny pinching but a simple mistake: the support line number begins 0870 while the island's STD code is a dangerously close 01870. What apparently hasn't occurred to the bright young things who work at software companies is that if they wrote decent programs in the first place a lot of these problems could be avoided. Here is a classic example of the industry-wide quality blindspot. It is an extract from a report comparing Windows NT with Sun's Solaris by an American research company, the Standish Group. "All the 30 users interviewed complained of NT availability concerns, stating the system often crashed for no apparent reason and required a reboot. When Standish asked Microsoft why NT had these availability problems, they responded stating they recently completed a new feature: the system will now reboot 50% faster. If the system never failed, why would Microsoft need to speed the reboot time?" Another "improvement" made to Windows, this time to the desktop version, promises to add to the confusion of the millennium. In the OSR2 upgrade made to Windows 95 last year, Microsoft introduced a facility for converting two-digit dates into millennium-proof four-digit versions. To cut a long story short, an algorithm determines that any number between 0 and 29 probably refers to a year in the 21st century and that any date entered as 30 or above is likely to belong to this century. This is fairly helpful - or it would have been if Microsoft had implemented this routine - known as the "date window" - in a consistent way. Somewhat unhelpfully, as Peter Morris of Mandelbrot Set pointed out last week, there have been at least eight builds of the DLL, some of which use a different version of the formula. Worse still, given that third-party applications frequently overwrite DLLs with versions of their own, there are any number of opportunities for Microsoft's ill conceived fix to come apart at the seams. Full details of the date window's negative contribution to the millennium problem are to be found in a long feature by Cliff Saran in last week's issue, though the technical complexities left even him confused: he wrote that any two digits of 30 or greater would refer to the 21st century. As several readers have pointed out, if true that would make the date of this issue 20 January 2098. Mole makes a mental note to see if a stint at Microsoft is on Cliff's CV. The passing reference last week to translation software has stirred memories in some of PC Week's older readers who have written to Mole to remind him that the phrase "out of sight, out of mind" has been used before to test the translation skills of computers. Many years ago, Doorski I, a Russian-English translation program running on an IBM mainframe came up with the highly satisfactory rendering "invisible idiot". Along similar lines, Mole has been told by an amateur historian that Microsoft's visibly idiotic slogan "Where do you want to go today?" is a direct translation of a German phrase frequently used by the SS in occupied Europe. He would be interested to hear from any scholar who can cast any light on this sinister matter. If it does turn out that Microsoft has inadvertently borrowed a Nazi phrase, you should read nothing into it other than the fact that the company has a small problem with words. Even simple English words appear to give it difficulty. In a report on the anti-competition case brought against the company by the Department of Justice, Stuart Lauchlan of the VNU Newswire, wrote: "Microsoft continued to irritate Judge Thomas Jackson on Wednesday by questioning the definition of the word 'remove', as it insisted that it was only obeying orders by shipping a non-working version of Windows 95 ... "... Jackson, who demanded of Microsoft vice president David Cole: 'It was absolutely clear to you that I entered an order that required you to distribute a product that would not work, that's what you're telling me?' " But Cole was defiant in the face of the judge's evident anger. 'In plain English, yes,' he said. 'We followed that order. It wasn't my place to consider the consequences of the order.'" Given this curious choice of language, perhaps Mole won't be needing the services of a historian after all. Don't get lost in the translation. Send Mole your juicy bits and anything else you happen to have lying around. Email preferred though the personal touch is still available on 0171 316 9068. Leave a message if Mole is too busy playing the invisible idiot to pick up the phone.
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