Killed by Microsoft PowerPoint

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Technology
September 30th, 2003 • 9:27 pm

When people talk about software quality control and the horrible amount of bugs and flaws inflicted upon hapless software users world-wide by careless software companies such as Microsoft, one of the key points is that these companies can get away with selling such buggy software because, unlike driving a car, for example, using computer software is not likely to become a life-or-death situation in which product design flaws might play a critical role.

Well, the recent waves of computer viruses and worms propagated via the Internet have shown that it’s probably only a matter of time before some critical piece of computer equipment running unreliable software will cause more than just digital harm. How long before a Windows virus causes some vital piece of hospital equipment to crash or a mass transportation disaster?

As a recent New York Times column by John Schwartz demonstrates, however, human loss caused by computer software has probably already happened. He writes that before the fatal end of the shuttle Columbia’s mission last January, with the craft still orbiting the earth, NASA engineers used a PowerPoint presentation to describe their investigation into whether a piece of foam that struck the shuttle’s wing during launching had caused serious damage and that a crucial piece of information — that the chunk of foam was hundreds of times larger than anything that had ever been tested — was relegated to the last point on the slide, squeezed into insignificance on a frame that suggested damage to the wing was minor.

The independent board that investigated the disaster did confirm that this was a significant problem in the cascade of events that led to the disaster.

Interestingly, the problem was not caused by a software bug, but by intrinsic flaws in the software design itself and in the way it purports to be shaping reality.

I’ve done my fair bit of joking about lousy PowerPoint presentations in the past, but it seems that we are quickly reaching a point where the general lousiness of software titles in general and of Microsoft software in particular is going to start having a significant human cost in our society.

It’s not just about bad people using software for malicious purposes. It’s about having an entire society under Microsoft-induced hypnosis using flawed software that effectively cripples thought and hampers action.

Some might argue that “it’s just a tool” and it all depends on what you do with it. But the same thing can be said about cars — and there are still tens of thousands of people dying every year on the road because of reckless or impaired driving.

I’m not advocating banning cars or lousy software, but I’m not sure that the point about bad software never having killed anyone will remain defendable much longer. And I sure wish that I didn’t have to worry about getting killed or maimed every time I hit the road.

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