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The past, present and future of software bugs

Tom Arah looks at the important issue of software reliability and taps into the online world of support.

A Corel bug

When it comes to evaluating an application, appreciating its strengths is never a problem with press releases, news stories and adverts all highlighting exactly what the program can do. Understanding what the program can't do is rather more difficult, but just as important. PageMaker and XPress are both powerful applications, but if you need to produce a price list with multiple page tables, for example, you would be better off looking elsewhere. Far worse than such limitations, however, are those occasions when a program claims that it can do something but in practice it turns out that it can't. The most obvious example is the bug that prevents you from outputting the masterpiece that you have laboriously created. These are far more important failings than features that simply weren't there in the first place as by the time you find out about them you have already wasted valuable effort. Moreover, the time spent already can soon prove insignificant compared to that spent attempting to find a workaround.

Corel and bugs

The company with far and away the worst reputation for failing to deliver on its promises in this way is Corel. There are some mitigating circumstances in that the programming effort involved in handling text, images, fonts, Postscript separated output and so on in an advanced publishing package is immense compared to that involved in the creation of a self-contained application like an accountancy package. On the other hand some of the bugs Corel has allowed to make it through to shrink-wrap have been inexcusable. I've talked before of the bug in Ventura 7.0's vertical justification that spread spacing unevenly down the page so rendering a major strength worse than useless. Just as fundamental and equally incredible was the bug in Draw 6.0 that meant that EPS files produced on any page apart from the first ended up without an onscreen preview.

At least the workaround to that problem was self-evident - break the publication into single page files - and so the effect was irritating rather than catastrophic. The peak of Corel's failure to deliver on promises was its first release of Ventura, version 5.0. This was so riddled with problems, such as the difficulty in controlling whether formatting had local or global results and the inability to either select underlying objects or to successfully load previously produced publications, that it was effectively unusable. This was no small matter to me personally as I had built up a design and training business that largely depended on the program, but there was absolutely nothing that I, or any other single user, could do about it.

In fact it was this feeling of impotence, combined with my anger at the disparity between the glowing reviews and the unworkable reality, that inspired me to write my own critique of the release which - to their undying credit - caught the eye of PC Pro. Since then I have reviewed all of the major publishing and graphics packages, always trying to view them from the practical user's point of view where limitations are as important as strengths. As such I've been able to build the importance of proven reliability into the reviews, but even so I've been very aware that the final verdict on a release can't be made by a standalone reviewer at the time of a product's launch. Instead it evolves over time through the experience of all users.

Have Things Improved?

I've been particularly aware of this with the release of Corel Draw 8. There has undoubtedly been a sea-change at Corel with the old bloatware approach replaced by a new streamlining that pushes the suite as "the choice of professionals". This change in direction deserves credit and I've been happy to give it. However, the fact that Corel is saying all the right things doesn't necessarily mean that it is delivering. As I write Draw 8 has now been out for over four months so the true verdict both on it and on Corel itself should be emerging.

The first port of call in assessing any program's professional reliability is your service provider. Problems when it comes to outputting are by their nature the worst as they occur when deadlines are tight and when expensive film is being wasted. The bureau I use has had many run-ins with Corel Draw in the past and hasn't been shy in talking about them. A particular problem with version 6, where files colour-separated happily when a page contained either RGB or CMYK tiffs but not when the two were mixed, springs readily to mind. Recently though feedback has been much more positive and the fact that my bureau now uses Draw as its preferred program for outputting EPS files created in other applications, rather than the previous favourite Illustrator, is undoubtedly a positive sign.

Searching for Information

Draw's Postscript outputting reliability certainly seems to have improved, but what about its reliability in daily use? The only way to find that out is online. The obvious first place to visit is Corel's own web site (www.corel.com) to look for support information and in particular news of any service release patches. Looking at previous versions tells its own story with the final service release for version 7.0 fixing a number of major bugs when saving to previous formats, when opening compressed files, when cutting and pasting under NT 4 and when outputting CMYK100 colours. At the time of writing though the only available patch for version 8 is a 2Kb patch for handling APLI Labels in the Spanish version.

Of course the fact that a bug fix isn't out doesn't necessarily mean that there aren't problems. Trying to find information on these involves some lateral thinking. Perhaps understandably Corel doesn't highlight such problems but hides them away in Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) files in its Tips and Techniques section. Again looking at the FAQs for previous versions is instructive - and occasionally amusing. The installation tips for version 7, for example, includes "Q: Why doesn't Microsoft Exchange work after installing CorelDRAW 7? A: CorelDRAW 7 will write an older version of MAPI32.DLL overtop of the newer version used by Microsoft Exchange - as a result, Microsoft Exchange will not work." You don't mean to say you actually wanted Exchange did you?

Again the Draw 8 FAQs seem minor in comparison with the worst problem appearing to be caused by importing the 3DMF sample files directly from the CD. If these are the only questions being frequently asked, there's no doubt that Draw's reliability has improved dramatically. Sadly they don't prove much at all. Looking at the Draw 6 FAQs, for example, failed to reveal any information on the many well-known problems such as the EPS preview bug. In fact it seemed pretty clear that a question was only likely to make it onto a FAQ when it had a clear workaround or had been solved with a patch release. In other words they are not being used as an honest knowledge base of problems, but rather as a tool for Corel to disseminate the information it wants to.

Independent Sources

Clearly I needed a more independent source of opinions. Of course this is exactly what the Internet is all about so I started up the search engine looking for "Corel Draw 8" + "bug". Things didn't look too good when AltaVista came back with 272,830 finds, but after visiting the first twenty or so my response was mixed. I had come across one useful site (http://www.euroexpo.co.uk/cd6bug.htm) which was actually a mirror of a list of over fifty Draw 6 bugs which seemed to have been drawn up by a single independent user Chris Dickman. This included information on how to recreate each problem, when it was first reported to Corel, any workarounds and whether it had been fixed in a service release. In other words it was exactly the sort of knowledge base that the official Corel site failed to provide. On the other hand, none of the sites visited had any useful information or comments on Draw 8 at all.

Forums and conferences

Either this meant that Draw 8 is completely bug-free or that trawling the Net in this way isn't feasible. Reluctantly I decided the latter was rather more likely. What I needed was a controlled environment where relevant opinions could be pooled. The obvious answer was to search the various online conferences and forums. This got off to a bad start when trying to access the AOL Corel message board led to repeated crashes, but I suppose that it would be unfair to blame Corel for this. I had more luck with CIX and the friendly UK-based nature of its Corel conference means that this is an excellent first stop to ask for specific help. If you wanted to check Draw 8's import of DXF files before you committed to upgrading, for example, you'd soon find a CIXen willing to try a test file for you. The general impression from the CIX conference seemed to be that Draw 8 is throwing up fewer problems, but the advantage of the conference - its community feel - means that the sample is just too small to be meaningful.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Corel Draw 8 support newsgroup (corel.support.draw8.draw) This has a very different atmosphere to CIX with many exasperated users venting their anger into the void, but it is full of useful information and opinion. An excellent balance between the two is available for Compuserve members (Go:Corel) where the high level of the user queries is matched by the knowledgeable and helpful replies of the sysops. The exact relation of these "volunteers" to Corel itself is left rather unclear, but even if they are not official support staff they are certainly in regular direct contact. The same volunteers also crop up answering questions in the universally accessible news group, but take less of a personal interest in seeing each problem through to a conclusion.

Still Problems

So what is the received wisdom and final verdict on the reliability of the latest Draw? When I read the message headings - "Cloning bug, Frequent System crashes, Bitmaps cause crash, $100 EPS Export problem, Weird pattern overprint, Transparency Problems!!!, Superscripts too high, KPT3 won't work, Layers weirdness, Drop shadow sadness, Epson 800/Corel Draw 8 wreak havoc, 11 x 17 won't print" - it looked like my worst fears were realised. Closer inspection though showed that in many cases, particularly those concerning print, the problems could be traceable to the drivers. In other cases it's unclear just who is responsible. The fact that certain UMAX scanners cause crashes when used with PhotoPaint, for example, could be blamed on either company.

Of those problems that Corel must take responsibility for, many can be classed as niggles rather than bugs - at least once the workaround is explained. The fact that rotated powerclipped items do not display correctly in normal view is annoying, for example, but can be solved by changing to enhanced mode. Other workarounds are less obvious and less excusable. To prevent drop shadows on multiple page publications from being lost on reopening the file, for example, it is necessary to set the advanced Save As option to "Save blends and extrudes." At least this makes some sort of sense, but the fact that some plug-ins that normally fail to load somehow will if you first open up WordPad might show the ingenuity of the forum users but is clearly not acceptable. By far the most serious bug and one without any current workaround is the fact that trying to save a file after applying a bitmap mask effect leads to a program crash. Again this is a problem so central to Draw's functionality that by itself it demands a service release. More to the point, Corel's testing should never have allowed a bug like this through to production.

Protecting Yourself

While Draw 8's reliability might be an improvement on its predecessors, it's clear that there's still a very long way to go. So does that mean that it always pays to wait until the last service release is issued? That was the view put by one CIXen who commented "Now that Corel Draw 8 is out is this a good time to upgrade to version 7 which presumably has all the bugs fixed?" Obviously there is some truth in this and the policy has the added advantage of being much cheaper with earlier versions available at bargain prices. On the other hand, apart from the obvious disadvantage of losing out on the new functionality and usability in the latest release, the system is by no means infallible. Many bugs, such as version 6's EPS preview problem, don't actually get fixed until the next major upgrade. In other words there never is a completely fault-free release.

So would the wise user actually be better off looking elsewhere? There are certainly many professional users who have chosen to accept a drop in power to look for a more reliable solution. Arguing against this though are two tendencies - while Corel is improving its act, the other companies are getting as bad. Visiting the Adobe web site, I was disappointed to find a service release to the latest Illustrator fixing a number of so-called "minor problems" such as printing EPS files from XPress and PageMaker, outputting to Scitex imagesetters, opening version 6 files and implementing "wysiwyg printing as stated in the documentation"! There is even a new patch for XPress 4.0 despite the fact that Quark had five years to make sure that it got things right.

Sadly the issue of bugs and unreliability is not going to disappear. The problem is that the ever-increasing complexity of applications and the ever-increasing push to market mean that more and more programming is being crammed into shorter and shorter developmental cycles. It's clear that in future it's the Corel/Microsoft annual development model - beta, paid release, free service release, next beta - that is going to dominate and reliability problems will be an inevitable consequence. It might be depressing but the wise user will accept the inevitable and prepare accordingly.

At least there are two positive aspects to the situation. The first is that, through web site distribution, software companies can react quickly to make sure that the worst bugs are fixed as soon as possible (see service release box out). The second is that through online support forums and the sharing of problems and solutions, users can actually do a great deal to help themselves. The days when users were essentially left to their own devices are long gone. Two phrases spring to mind "a problem shared is a problem halved" and "forewarned is forearmed". While it's clear that bugs in the system aren't going to go away, with the free flow of information and experience their effects can be lessened and often avoided.

Tom Arah

April 1998

Current Service Releases

Originally I had hoped to include the latest service releases of the major publishing and graphics packages on the CD, but registration and compatibility issues make this impossible. In any case, by the time you read this, the releases might have been updated. I would suggest bookmarking the major web sites (www.adobe.com, www.corel.com, www.quark.com, www.macromedia.com) and visiting on a regular basis.

Photoshop 4.0.1: Mainly improvements including much improved MMX support and the opening of LZW compressed TIFFs, but also fixes some minor problems such as incorrect CMYK white readings. This update is for the U.S. English version with localized versions "due soon".

PageMaker 6.52: Various relatively minor fixes to master pages, grid manager, threaded frames, interrupted hyperlink handling. Also a number of major separate download fixes for utilities like Adobe Table 3.04.

Illustrator 7.0.1: Fixes major problems with EPS files, font list, PCL printing and offers WMF and image map export.

Corel Draw 7.375: Corrects file decompression problems, language support, CMYK100 to CMYK256 conversion, single character printing, saving new colour models to previous file formats.

Corel Ventura 7 Revision C, build 1465: Information not available on site.

QuarkXPress 4.02. Includes fixes for saving, printing, and clipping paths and new versions of the CMS, Index and JPEG XTensions.

A Problem Shared

One of the most regular causes of problems for Corel users and a regular favourite on the forums is Draw's powerful but idiosyncratic handling of transparency (see issue 43). Thanks go to Steve Hardy for getting in touch to offer this advice - it's exactly through this sort of sharing of hard-won experience that nightmares can be avoided:

Tom, I am loath to tell you how to get the transparency effects to work in Corel as you might publish it and bang goes my major unique selling point as a designer<G>. For reasons that only Corel knows, when it exports to EPS it uses the colour profile for the composite printer. This often shifts the colours in the EPS including CMYK values in the vector artwork!! The key is to use the generic CMYK Euroscale colour profile for both the separations and colour printer. This solves the problem as the rasterised bitmaps that Corel creates to simulate transparency now take on the correct CMYK values mimicking the vector artwork they replace. The rendered resolution of these bitmaps can be set in the printer/options/misc dialog box, this is one of the strange list of unexplained settings that you scroll through. I have used many of these effects and even in work being run at a 200lpi screen I cannot detect where the vectors end and bitmaps begin on the Matchprints.

Kind regards, Steve Hardy, www.steali.co.uk


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