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By Jack Ganssle

Software Warranties

Published 9/21/2007

In a free 168 page report called "Software for Dependable Systems: Sufficient Evidence?" (available from http://www.nap.edu/catalog/11923.html, registration required) the authors take a stab at much COTS software: "Clearly, no software should be considered dependable if it is supplied with a disclaimer that withholds the manufacturer's commitment to provide a warranty or other remedies for software that fails to meet its dependability claims."

Ouch. What application software comes <i>without</i> such a disclaimer?

Some might argue that so much COTS software is so complex that such disclaimers are inevitable. I suspect vendors worry more about prospective lawsuits. Yet cars come with warranties, and a failure, say of the brakes, could result in plenty of liability.

A TV comes with a strong warranty. Tools do. So does an iPod, cell phone, and just about any physical product. I can buy something from most reputable vendors and return it, no questions asked. If it causes damages, the usual remedies are available. What's different about software?

The disclaimer that comes with software is the total antithesis of a warranty. That disclaimer typically disavows every guarantee other than the integrity of the media. That's like claiming the cardboard box that a computer ships in will function properly, but if the computer doesn't work or bursts into flames it's the consumer's problem.

Open source programs fare no better. Provision 15 of version 3 of the GPL reads (in all caps just as shown): "THERE IS NO WARRANTY FOR THE PROGRAM, TO THE EXTENT PERMITTED BY APPLICABLE LAW. EXCEPT WHEN OTHERWISE STATED IN WRITING THE COPYRIGHT HOLDERS AND/OR OTHER PARTIES PROVIDE THE PROGRAM "AS IS" WITHOUT WARRANTY OF ANY KIND, EITHER EXPRESSED OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, THE IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY AND FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE. THE ENTIRE RISK AS TO THE QUALITY AND PERFORMANCE OF THE PROGRAM IS WITH YOU. SHOULD THE PROGRAM PROVE DEFECTIVE, YOU ASSUME THE COST OF ALL NECESSARY SERVICING, REPAIR OR CORRECTION."

Certainly there are very good reasons for this provision, not the least is that holding a series of authors legally accountable will remove any incentive to contribute to the community.

But if software should only be considered dependable if it comes with a strong warranty, GPLed code fails the test as miserably as software from the most difficult of proprietary code vendors.

In the PC industry this may not be much of an issue. Firmware is different. We provide a component of a product, and that product certainly will have a warranty. Building a guaranteed product out of un-guaranteed, or un-guaranteeable, components is as absurd as constructing a rigid skyscraper from packets of Jello.

The facts are stark. Users demand ever more functionality. Firmware grows at a staggering rate. More of us are turning to COTS to get this added functionality in a reasonable timeframe. But most COTS vendors offer only the weakest warranties.

What do you think? What's the role of warranties in dependable software?