SOFTWARE - A CRISIS ON THE HORIZON?
Many industry observers (including this author) have characterized the problems associated with software development as a "crisis." More than a few books (e.g., [GLA97], [FLO97], [YOU98a]) have recounted the impact of some of the more spectacular software failures that have occurred over the past decade. Yet, the great successes achieved by the software industry have led many to question whether the term software crisis is still appropriate. Robert Glass, the author of a number of books on software failures, is representative of those who have had a change of heart. He states [GLA98]: “I look at my failure stories and see exception reporting, spectacular failures in the midst of many successes, a cup that is [now] nearly full.”
It is true that software people succeed more often than they fail. It also true that the software crisis predicted 30 years ago never seemed to materialize. What we really have may be something rather different.
The word crisis is defined in Webster's Dictionary as “a turning point in the course of anything; decisive or crucial time, stage or event.” Yet, in terms of overall software quality and the speed with which computer-based systems and products are developed, there has been no "turning point," no "decisive time," only slow, evolutionary change, punctuated by explosive technological changes in disciplines associated with software.
The word crisis has another definition: "the turning point in the course of a disease, when it becomes clear whether the patient will live or die." This definition may give us a clue about the real nature of the problems that have plagued software development.
What we really have might be better characterized as a chronic affliction.2 The word affliction is defined as "anything causing pain or distress." But the definition of the adjective chronic is the key to our argument: "lasting a long time or recurring often; continuing indefinitely." It is far more accurate to describe the problems we have endured in the software business as a chronic affliction than a crisis.
Regardless of what we call it, the set of problems that are encountered in the development of computer software is not limited to software that "doesn't function properly." Rather, the affliction encompasses problems associated with how we develop software, how we support a growing volume of existing software, and how we can expect to keep pace with a growing demand for more software. We live with this affliction to this day—in fact, the industry prospers in spite of it. And yet, things would be much better if we could find and broadly apply a cure.