In my American scientist Chronicle this month, I spoke out against the attitude of software companies that we, the public, are willing to serve as their unpaid beta testers. In an age when they can update their software over the Internet, why should they refrain from cleaning up the code in time for version 1.0? Having said that, writing perfect software is probably impossible. I am often told that no the software is completely bug free. Maybe then we should have some empathy for the companies that launch huge, ambitious software monsters with a million lines of code that turn out to have mind-boggling bugs.
Here are some of the most famous, devastating, or interesting bugs in recent history:
AT&T hangs up its long distance service (1990): For nine hours in January 1990, no AT&T customer was able to make a long distance call. The problem was the software that controlled the company’s long-distance relay switches, software that had just been updated. AT&T ended up losing $ 60 million in fees that day, a very costly bug.
The mathematical error of the Pentium chip (1993): Thanks to a programming error, Intel’s famous Pentium chip turned out to be pretty bad at math. The actual mistakes he made were quite small (beyond the eighth decimal place) and limited to certain types of division problems. But the irony – oh, the irony! After minimizing the severity of the problem, even causing Following public backlash, the company eventually agreed to provide anyone who requested it with a fixed chip.
The Mars Climate Orbiter disintegrates in space (1998): NASA’s $ 655 million robotic space probe has sunk into Mars’ upper atmosphere at the wrong angle, burning in the process. The problem? In the software that managed the computers on the ground, the thruster output was calculated in the wrong units (pound-seconds instead of newton-seconds, as specified in the NASA-Lockheed contract). Fortunately, the software programs for subsequent missions to Mars got the right measurements.
Windows locks down non-software hackers (2007): For 7 hours on August 24, 2007, anyone attempting to install Windows was told by Microsoft’s anti-piracy software (called Windows Genuine Advantage) that they were installing illegal copies. If you had purchased Windows Vista, you discovered that some features were disabled as a punishment. This time the bug was both human and traditional: someone accidentally installed a buggy first version of Genuine Advantage software on Microsoft’s servers.
Apple Maps gives us directions to nowhere (2012): In its rivalry with Google, Apple decided to ditch the popular Google Maps app that was still present on newer iPhones and replace it with a new map app that Apple had written itself.
But in Apple’s maps, entire lakes, stations, bridges, and tourist attractions were missing or mislabeled. The Washington Monument has moved across the street. Riverside Hospital appeared in Jacksonville, Florida, even though it had become a Publix supermarket 11 years earlier. In the app’s 3D view, the bridges and dams seemed to blend into the water and Auckland, New Zealand’s main train station, was in the middle of the ocean.
The data underlying mapping applications comes from dozens of different databases: for roads, satellite photos, points of interest, etc. But putting them together requires not only smart software, but also thousands of hours of manual labor, which Google has had years to complete, but not Apple. Little by little, Apple has been fixing these issues, but the company may struggle to instill all the lost trust in Maps.