Excel bug for sale

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A minor media flap began last week when someone tried to sell an Excel flaw on eBay. Fortunately the ‘product’ has since been withdrawn.

WHAT EXCEL FLAW?

A minor media flap began last week when someone tried to sell an Excel flaw on eBay. Fortunately the ‘product’ has since been withdrawn.

The seller alleges that he found an Excel flaw, notified Microsoft and got a reply saying that the company may supply a fix at some undisclosed time in the future. So he decided to ‘sell’ the flaw on eBay.

At this stage we know nothing about the flaw, whether it is real or not, which versions of Excel it affected, or anything else. Microsoft has not replied to our enquiries on the subject.

While this might have been a money-grabbing exercise it may well have been a novel way to draw attention to Microsoft’s support handling. The more interesting point has been missed, in our opinion.


WHAT’S MICROSOFT HIDING?

Microsoft has a habit of hiding known bugs from their customers – it’s something the company has done for years and that policy is well overdue for a change.

It is highlighted by this attempted ‘sale’ but it’s been going on for many years. The Microsoft Knowledge Base (KB) is only a list of the bugs (sorry ‘issues’) that the company chooses to make known to the public.

All too often there are patches or service packs released to fix problems and simultaneously there’s a KB article published disclosing both the bug and the patch. Clearly the bug was known before that event, yet the company chooses to hide that fact from their paying customers.

The most famous case was the Excel 97 recalculation bugs that the company knew about but chose to do nothing until both Office Watch and a stubborn customer publicly shamed them into action.

There are also bugs that are fixed but we never hear any of the details. Each Service Pack that is released has a long list of fixes. Some are linked to KB articles (new or previously published) but many others get no more than a non-specific mention in a few words – no Knowledge Base article – not a support sausage.

Talking privately to Microsoft staff, they know about this policy and dislike it as much as anyone. It is presumably aimed at giving customers a mistaken impression that their chosen software is more reliable than it really is.

Many of these bugs occur in rare situations and most of us will never strike them. But the ‘popularity’ of a bug should not be an excuse for non-disclosure. With millions of people using Microsoft Office, even a rare bug can affect many people.

Each bug can cause a lot of time wasted and angst to the customer – that is grossly aggravated by Microsoft’s failure to disclose. If you strike a problem and find it listed in the KB, even without any direct fix, at least you don’t waste time trying to fix the unfixable. Microsoft doesn’t consider the cost to customers in this policy – just their own short-term benefit.

These days many computer users are smarter, and they know that software is never perfect. But they do expect the makers to responsibly disclose what they know.

In past decades we’ve seen the tobacco, car and pharmaceutical industries get into serious trouble (and rightly so) for withholding critical information from the public. While Microsoft’s behavior isn’t of that order, it could have serious consequences for the company down the line.

I should note that there is a special case that warrants non-disclosure. Security problems need to be kept ‘under wraps’ until there’s a fix, because premature disclosure gives an opportunity for hackers to exploit the problem. However Microsoft has a duty to provide fixes in a timely way and should not use the ‘security’ excuse to justify hiding other bugs.

 

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