Win 2K or Win 63K?

Virginia's general assembly became the first state legislature in the U.S. to pass the Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act (UCITA). That's the law that makes shrink-wrapped software licenses legally binding. The votes came just days after an internal Microsoft memo surfaced, stating that 63,000 "potential known defects" - bugs, design problems, you name it - are still unfixed in the shipping version of Windows 2000.

          It’s official: Virginia’s general assembly became the first state legislature in the U.S. to pass the Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act (UCITA). That’s the law that makes shrink-wrapped software licenses legally binding. The votes came just days after an internal Microsoft memo surfaced, stating that 63,000 “potential known defects” — bugs, design problems, you name it — are still unfixed in the shipping version of Windows 2000.

          If you want to understand why Microsoft and other software vendors have lobbied so hard for UCITA, just reread that last sentence.

          Sixty-three thousand known defects. That’s after two and a half years of bug fixers deciding each day which bugs to fix, fixing them, recompiling the whole mess and testing it all night — then starting all over again with a new batch of bugs the next morning.

          And that’s in addition to more than 65,000 other “potential issues” turned up by Microsoft’s Prefix testing tool. Microsoft figures only about 28,000 of the “issues” turned up by Prefix will turn out to be real problems.

          Full disclosure: We don’t know how serious those 63,000 “defects” and 28,000 “issues” are. In fact, Computerworld US hasn’t seen the memo, which was turned up by a reporter for another publication. But a Microsoft Windows marketing director confirmed that the memo’s contents as reported are authentic.

          What we do know is what a Microsoft manager on the Windows 2000 development team, Marc Lucovsky, wrote in the memo: Microsoft is shipping a product with tens of thousands of defects the company knows about but hasn’t corrected — and that some of those will probably cause customers problems.

          In the summer of 1998 — just after Windows 2000 (then called Windows NT 5.0) missed its first promised shipping target — I described the debacle in this column and wrote, “Windows NT 5.0 is hopelessly out of control. It’s a classic monster project run amok. It will never really be done — just declared finished someday when Bill Gates gets fed up with waiting for this cash sink to turn into cash flow and sets it loose on the world.”

          Now we know that’s exactly what happened. The unfinished Win 2k is finally shipping — 63,000 “known defects” and all.

          Can any software be perfectly bug-free? In IT shops, we know the answer too well. Even at best, we can’t find and fix them all.

          But these aren’t bugs Microsoft couldn’t find or can’t fix. In fact, Lucovsky’s memo says coding work on future Windows releases won’t proceed until all the current Windows 2000 bugs are fixed or cleared.

          Now, if a new car model ships with one major safety-threatening defect, all those cars will be recalled for repair. If an automaker or any other consumer product company knowingly ships defective products, that company is instantly a ripe target for a class-action lawsuit.

          Which brings us to UCITA.

          UCITA’s purpose is to protect software vendors from legal liability for product defects. With UCITA, if software you buy has a defect — or 63,000 defects — you’re out of luck. You’ve got no legal recourse. If a defect causes your business to tank — even if the software vendor knew about and didn’t disclose the problem when you bought the software — you’ve got no legal recourse. It says so right in the warranty’s fine print.

          Which could explain why Microsoft isn’t so worried that news leaked out about all those bugs in Windows 2000.

          UCITA doesn’t have to pass in all 50 states. Just one may be enough.

          So if Microsoft changes its software licenses to read “governed by the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia,” you’ll know why.

          Hayes, Computerworld US’s staff columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years.

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