Why it’s still your bug, even when it’s not

In the previous post, I talked about a workaround for a bug that occurs when integrating with the Facebook Android app. It brings up an interesting question: when software A integrates with software B, and software B has a bug, whose responsibility is it to fix it?

Intuitively, you might answer B. “It’s B’s fault. The developer of A can wash his/her hands of the whole matter and go to bed with a clean conscience.” Justice prevails, right?

But I disagree. In my opinion, the responsibility falls on whomever the user chooses to blame. Because when it comes down to it, the user does not care whose bug it is. They just want someone to fix it, or else heads will roll.

Case in point: the Facebook ACTION_SEND bug. To recap, the ACTION_SEND Intent is used to send arbitrary text from one app to another. Many apps answer the call – Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, Yammer – any app that may be interested in the text. Intuitively, Facebook should let you share the text as a status update, like Twitter and Yammer do, but instead they stubbornly interpret it as a URL. If it’s not a URL, then it barfs up an error.

In my own apps, I could have just used the ACTION_SEND Intent as-is. Let Facebook clean up their own mess – my hands are clean. But obviously, because I’m one man and because Facebook is Facebook, users would assume the bug is mine. So here’s what would have happened if I had chosen to ignore it: I’d get a ton of emails and Android Market comments saying, “Facebook doesn’t work” or “4 stars until you fix Facebook.”

Maybe then I would have smugly responded, “It’s Facebook’s bug, not mine.” Or, if the comments persisted, I might have added a popup saying, “Facebook doesn’t work correctly, due to a bug in their app. Please avoid Facebook.” But as we know from a previous post, users don’t read anything. So I would have continued getting angry comments and emails, and I would just have to respond to each one with a triumphant “Not my bug.” In the end, my users would be unhappy, but hey – at least I stood up for myself, right? At least I’d have the satisfaction of knowing I did the right thing.

But this is not the right thing. At least, not if you believe that the point of software is to make people happy. In fact, there’s a grand tradition of unsung heroes in software development fighting to fix the other guy’s bug. Once again, my main man Joel Spolsky explains:

[I heard this] from one of the developers of the hit game SimCity, who told me that there was a critical bug in his application: it used memory right after freeing it, a major no-no that happened to work OK on DOS but would not work under Windows where memory that is freed is likely to be snatched up by another running application right away. The testers on the Windows team were going through various popular applications, testing them to make sure they worked OK, but SimCity kept crashing. They reported this to the Windows developers, who disassembled SimCity, stepped through it in a debugger, found the bug, and added special code that checked if SimCity was running, and if it did, ran the memory allocator in a special mode in which you could still use memory after freeing it.

From Microsoft’s point of view, they had a good reason for doing this. If a customer was upgrading from DOS to Windows, and suddenly all their favorite applications stopped working, they’d simply return Windows. Microsoft would bear the fallout from the other guy’s mistake. Once again, the one who gets blamed is not necessarily at fault, but it’s still his/her responsibility to fix the bug.

In Android development the most infamous instance of this occurs in the Android Market, and it’s the bane of Android developers everywhere:

“Error 18” occurs when the Android Market fails to download and install an app. And even though it has nothing to do with the app itself, this is the most common bug you will see reported by users. In fact, I’ve gotten so many reports of this bug that I’ve created a “canned response” in Gmail that I send out to all of them. I believe I recall reading that Arron La, the developer of the immensely popular Advanced Task Killer app, has said that he simply stopped responding to these kinds of emails, because he gets too many of them.

The reason that poor schmucks like Arron and me get inundated with these emails is due to the interface of the Android Market itself. When an app fails to install, the user will be on this page:

It may as well say, “Direct your frustration here.” And from the user’s point of view, this is understandable. When they get an error like this, whom are they supposed to ask for help? Google is not famous for their tech support. So, as the quaint proverb goes, shit rolls downhill. And it hits the developer first.

So we’ve established that the one who gets blamed is not necessarily the one at fault. But how do you determine who gets blamed? In the case of SimCity, it was the OS rather than the app. In the case of “Error 18,” it’s the app rather than the OS. I think the explanation for this is pretty simple.

In the smartphone world, your OS is wedded to your phone, and your phone is very dear to you. Perhaps you even consider it an extension of your psyche, the way some people might feel about a trendy haircut or designer jeans. So if an app breaks on your phone, you return the $2 app, rather than the $500, psyche-extending phone. In Microsoft’s case, the OS was not very closely tied to the hardware back in the 90’s, and the cost of an application was about the same as that of the OS. Or at least, the gap wasn’t as steep as $2 vs. $500. So in that case, it’s Windows that would get returned.

I think this can all be generalized as follows. The bug becomes your bug if:

  1. You are more accessible than the other guy, e.g. they represent understaffed call centers in far-flung corners of the world, whereas you represent a single ordinary person (who must have oodles of spare time to answer emails, if you can afford to waste it writing apps).
  2. You are more visible when the problem occurs, e.g. the bug pops up when you use the other guy’s library, and that library is invisible to the user.
  3. You will suffer the most from the blame. I think this is the big one. Even if user opinion is split 50/50 on whose fault it is, it becomes your bug if the blame hurts you more than the other guy. The Android Market bug is an instance of this, since “Error 18” might cause a developer to lose a sale, but it hardly affects Google’s bottom line.

Unfortunately for me, even though the “Error 18” bug is my bug by this definition, there’s not a whole lot I can do about it. There’s nothing I can change in the software that would stop the error from occurring, or lessen the pain for the user. So the best I can do is keep responding to these emails.

Or, if I’m feeling snarky, maybe I can link them here.

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