The $7 Billion Boo-boo

Talk about a costly testing “oops.” Microsoft is facing a potential fine of up to 10 percent of its revenue, or about $7 billion, over failing to verify that one of its Windows upgrades didn’t meet the terms of an antitrust settlement with the European Union.

Previous charges against Microsoft of giving preference to its own browser were settled by a so-called “ballot screen” that allowed users to choose among browser options, but a routine update to Windows 7 caused the ballot screen not to be displayed for some 28 million users.

Microsoft acknowledged that it had “fallen short” of its obligations:

Due to a technical error, we missed delivering the BCS software to PCs that came with the service pack 1 update to Windows 7. The BCS software has been delivered as it should have been to PCs running the original version of Windows 7, as well as the relevant versions of Windows XP and Windows Vista. However, while we believed when we filed our most recent compliance report in December 2011 that we were distributing the BCS software to all relevant PCs as required, we learned recently that we’ve missed serving the BCS software to the roughly 28 million PCs running Windows 7 SP1.

While we have taken immediate steps to remedy this problem, we deeply regret that this error occurred and we apologize for it.

On one hand, with so many Windows versions and updates out there—many of them routine and even automated—it might be understandable that a feature here or there might be missed. On the other hand, with several billion dollars, a legal agreement, and an international reputation at stake, you would think a single screen would merit some serious attention.

This is a stellar example of where automation could have really made a difference. One of the beauties of automated tests is that, unlike humans, they don’t forget to test something. Once it is defined, it gets tested each and every time until the test is changed. And, if I were in charge of browser QA at Microsoft, I would have prioritized a multi-billion-dollar exposure right at the top of my must-automate list. Wouldn’t you?

And, while no one would wish a consequence of this magnitude on anyone, I am grateful to Microsoft for providing such a teachable moment about the true costs of inadequate test coverage and the potential benefits of test automation. You can rest assured that it will find its way into the Hall of Infamy for my and many others’ presentations on the risks and advantages of investing in testing.

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