Software Bugs Effects Magnified as Systems Take Over Businesses
Insurance Experts' Forum, November 1, 2010
I read with some amusement today that, according to AppleInsider, a still-unfixed bug with Apple's iPhone caused alarms in Europe to go off an hour late Monday as the continent switched from daylight saving time, but the phones’ alarms did not.
The same bug affected iPhone users in Australia and New Zealand in September, causing their alarms to go off an hour early in the southern hemisphere, the source said. In North America, the switch from daylight saving time occurs later this week. Clocks will be rolled back on Sunday, Nov. 7, and if Apple doesn't issue a fix, the glitch will likely affect users here as well.
I was amused at this only because I don’t have an iPhone. But then it struck me that here we have an example of a single software glitch causing, literally, a worldwide problem. Of course, I don’t believe this particular glitch is likely to have a huge impact, but the fact that it has had an impact literally around the globe is cause for concern. Will it really upset me if a soccer-Mutter in Germany can’t get her Kinder to a match on time? Probably not. And (speaking of bugs) will I pitch a fit if a university entomology student in Sydney is late for his early morning class on poisonous insects? Nope.
On the other hand, if you move this kind of problem into the business sphere, a lot of bad things can happen, especially if the offending device or platform happens to be inside your network. So many of our IT processes in insurance and financial services are automated, and this trend is only likely to continue. So, if I have instructed my systems to execute critical financial transactions at 5:00 p.m., but it doesn’t happen until 6:00 p.m., is that a problem? Could be.
The overarching problem here is that we have come to depend so heavily on computer systems to run our businesses that even a small error could have a major consequence. It seems obvious that we should have checks and double checks on all our business-critical processes, but if the entire enterprise believes it is an hour earlier or later than it really is, even the checks will be useless.
And suppose we transferred this amusing little glitch to our military systems, including those that regulate troop movements in battle zones. Will one hour be a meaningless difference, or will it have disastrous consequences for our fighting men and women?
If software glitches could be confined to the devices in which they originated, the damage would obviously be less. But our devices are increasingly interconnected and inter-dependent. One of the realities of the highly connected world is that your software problems could very easily become my software problems, especially if we are doing business together.
I wish there were an easy answer to this one, but the truth is that we will continue to take automated processes for granted, and we won’t give them a thought until that glitch causes a problem. By then, however, it may be too late to avert danger, damage or worse.
So I am now not so amused at the iPhone glitch. It only points out how truly vulnerable we are to the smallest bugs in our systems. And bugs exist in every system. Given the increased magnitude of the effects, vendors and enterprises alike must be diligent in seeking out and squashing bugs before they infest our friends, business partners and government. If it means that software will cost more, it seems worth the price. If it means that we must spend more time and resources on perfecting our systems, we must do what it takes.
Ara C. Trembly (www.aratremblytechnology.com) is the founder of Ara Trembly, The Tech Consultant, and a longtime observer of technology in insurance and financial services.
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