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The Demand for Software Quality
A Conversation with Bertrand Meyer, Part I
by Bill Venners
October 27, 2003

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Commercial Forces on Software Quality

Bill Venners: In your paper, The Grand Challenge of Trusted Components, you write "There is a quality incentive, but it only leads to the acceptability point: the stage at which remaining deficiencies do not endanger [the product's] usefulness to the market. Beyond that point, most managers consider that further quality enhancing measures yield a quickly diminishing return on investment." How do commercial pressures affect software quality?

Bertrand Meyer: Commercial pressures affect software quality partly positively and partly negatively. It is almost tempting to use as an analogy the Laffer Curve, which was popular for a while in so-called Reaganomics. I'm not an economist, and I hear that the theory has been by now discredited, so I really don't want to imply that the Laffer Cruve is fundamentally true in economics. Nevertheless, the Laffer Curve is the idea that if you tax people at zero percent, the state suffers because it doesn't get any revenue. If you tax people at 100%, it's in the end no better, because if people are not making any money, they will stop working, and the state will also not get any revenue. It's a rather simplistic argument. Although it is pretty clear the Laffer Curve has an element of truth, I'm not sure how precise or accurate it is in economics. But as an analogy, it describes well the commercial pressures on software quality.

If you produce a software system that has terrible quality, you lose because no one will want to buy it. If on the other hand you spend infinite time, extremely large effort, and huge sums of money to build the absolutely perfect piece of software, then it's going to take so long to complete and it will be so expensive to produce that you'll be out of business anyway. Either you missed the market window, or you simply exhausted all your resources. So people in industry try to get to that magical middle ground where the product is good enough not to be rejected right away, such as during evaluation, but also not the object of so much perfectionism and so much work that it would take too long or cost too much to complete.

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