UPDATE - Software Makers May Face More Producti Scrutiny

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Software Makers May Face More Product Scrutiny

Database Design Contributed to Jet's Crash, Jury Says


By Leah Beth Ward / The Dallas Morning News

When a jury this week found that a database design problem contributed to the crash of American Airlines Flight 965, which killed 159 people in Colombia, longtime critics of software quality were encouraged.

Perhaps the court system, their thinking goes, will accomplish what little else has so far: the imposition of higher standards and accountability on the software industry.

A federal jury in Miami found that two other companies in addition to the Fort Worth-based airline were partly liable for the crash: Jeppesen Sanderson Inc., which makes software used for navigation and Honeywell Air Transport Systems, which used the database in its flight computers.

The jury found privately held Jeppesen, of Englewood, Colo., 17 percent responsible for the crash.

If the verdict holds up on appeal, the company would have to pay $45.9 million in damages. Jeppesen earned about $64 million in 1999.

The company is appealing and declined to comment.

Computer industry experts describe the jury's decision as a rare exception to the public's long-held reluctance to blame software manufacturers for disruptive defects.

The hesitation stems, at least in part, from what can be the intellectually inhibiting world of software, with its arcane coding and frontier culture.

"It's been very difficult for anyone to point to the software as the problem. It's too easy to point to something else," said Dr. Leon Kappelman, a University of North Texas professor of business computer information systems and director of UNT's Information Systems Research Center.

The American Airlines case could help stoke a nascent movement to make the industry's publishers more legally liable for defective products, said several experts versed in the topic.

At the same time, experts say, the sizable damage award against Jeppesen could hasten the software industry's own learning curve about the cost and benefit of fixing known defects before an application is too far down the road.

Consumer activist Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed crusade against the Chevy Corvair for its habit of flipping at 35 mph on a dry road permanently changed the auto industry's behavior. Some say a comparison with software makers is inevitable.

"It's hard to imagine the automobile industry saying, 'We have no liability,'" said Barbara Simons, president of the Association for Computing Machinery, a New York-based educational and scientific association with 80,000 members.

"But that is effectively what the software industry has been able to say," Ms. Simons said.

The Business Software Alliance, an industry group in Washington, declined to comment.

The issue of accountability in the software industry is coming into focus around a proposed state statute called the Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act.

The law would create a uniform commercial contract code for computer software products and databases. State lawmakers must ratify the code before it can take effect. So far, two states  Virginia and Maryland  have adopted the code.

The Software & Information Industry Association, a Washington industry group, has supported the measure, saying it would create standards for an otherwise undefined area of law.

Opponents include 26 state attorneys general, the Newspaper Association of America and several consumer groups.

A spokesman for Texas Attorney General John Cornyn said the office is not aware of the code.

Peter B. Ladkin, a professor of computer networks at the University of Bielefeld in Germany, has studied the 1995 American Airlines crash in Cali, Colombia.

He said in an e-mail that he agrees with the jury's finding that the design of the database and industry standards that "allowed it to be designed that way" contributed to the crash.

The issue is complicated, however, because the computer and the database in question both worked "exactly as designed," he said, making the problem one of the way humans interact with complex systems as opposed to a physical defect in the software.

That said, "It is hard to persuade some people of what some of us would call questionable or inappropriate design" of the computer systems on aircraft. "I think the result of this case will bring more attention to these issues."

Ms. Simon said consumer safety shouldn't be compromised just because something is complex.

"The consumer is put into a kind of 'use-it-at-your-own-risk' situation," she said.

Dr. Kappelman said it would probably take more jury verdicts before software makers decide that ferreting out design defects is less costly than the prospect of being taken to court.

"It's too bad it has to be that way, but that's often what it takes," he said. http://dallasnews.com/business/97481_software_17bus.html

-- (Dee360Degree@aol.com), June 17, 2000


As a long time systems analyst and programmer I can attest to the "get it out the door" mindset at work here. Marketing is selling "customized" systems with impossible deadlines, and the upper management is supporting them. These guys want the big sales, etc., so they can boost the stock and excercise their options to become super wealthy.

When you attempt to complete testing, or stop defective software, you are accused of "not being a team player". This had led to a vast majority of programming being done by "body shops" who only hire inexperienced foriegn H1B Visa indentured-servants (slaves) progammers and forcing out qualified Americans and Green-card immigrants. The U. S. Congress and the Clinton Administration have a major factor in this labor situation by continuing to expand the H1B Visa program even though the GAO says that there is no proof that it is needed. In other words, there are plenty of qualified Americans to do these jobs. But Americans can go to the media when there is defective software. The H1B Visa person will just get deported and fined by the company if they complain, even to their supervisors. The Department of Commerce also found massive fraud in the applications for the foriegn programmers being brought in. The high tech industry is now showering the Repoublicans and Democrats with soft-money bribes to expand this visa program.

Having buggy software when you are using a word processor is annoying. When it is replacing flight crew on a jet (or a medical device) it can be deadly. The software industry wants to automate everything without any quality control or oversight. They want to hire less-qualified slaves for these vital jobs. They want no control on their business practices.

A recent post also highlight the lack of security checks on the H1B Visa workers who have access to vital airline safety systems. The impact of this lack of control, forcing out qualified American programmers/analyst/engineers and security gaps will be worse then anything caused by Y2K.

-- K (infosurf@yahoo.com), June 18, 2000.

Stunningly well said, K. Add in the variable of the ever widening power gap of the "those who know how" and "those who know not" and Houston we've got a problem. Overseeing the production outcome of quality software is a bit like asking a cow puncher to quality check the latest brain surgery techniques.

-- Jen (jen@bunkergroup.com), June 18, 2000.

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