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Microsoft Error Reporting Drives Bug Fixing Efforts

Microsoft is prioritizing its bug fixing efforts based on the pop-up error report windows that appear during setup and application crashes in newer versions of Windows and Office, according to a letter Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer sent to customers Wednesday evening.

The technology was developed by a small team in the Office group and is formally called Microsoft Error Reporting. Microsoft says it keeps the information anonymous and confidential in a secure database that will not be used to identify users or for marketing purposes.

"With this immensely valuable feedback from our customers, we're now able to prioritize debugging work on our products to achieve the biggest improvement in customers' experience," Ballmer wrote.

The error reporting feature allowed Microsoft to address 29 percent of errors involving the operating system and Microsoft and third-party applications running on it in Windows XP Service Pack 1, which shipped last month. Error reporting helped Microsoft identify and eliminate more than half of all Office XP errors with Office XP Service Pack 2, according to Ballmer's letter.

"We've been amazed by the patterns revealed in the error reports that customers are sending us. The reports identify bugs not only in our own software, but in Windows-based applications from independent hardware and software vendors as well," Ballmer wrote. The 22-year Microsoft veteran relayed that he was stunned to learn from Microsoft Error Reporting that one percent of all bugs cause half of all errors.

Ballmer acknowledged the risks involved in creating an error reporting infrastructure. "One risk is that error reporting could compound a customer's irritation over the error itself," he wrote, adding that Microsoft attempted to make the error reporting simple and quick.

Privacy concerns are obviously a barrier as well, Ballmer noted: "We use advanced security technologies to help protect these error reports, which are gathered on a cluster of dedicated Microsoft servers and are used for no other purpose than to find and fix bugs."

Although Microsoft has made the privacy assurances, company documents show that personally identifiable information could be contained in the memory and application data compiled in the 100-200K "minidumps" that Microsoft Error Reporting compiles and sends back to Microsoft. In case personal data is sent to Microsoft, it won't be used to identify users, according to Microsoft's privacy policy. But in reporting issues to Microsoft, users must trust Microsoft's partners as well. About 450 partners have been granted access to the error reporting database to see records related to their drivers, utilities and applications, Ballmer's letter notes. For more information about Microsoft's privacy policy in Microsoft Error Reporting, click here: http://watson.microsoft.com/dw/1033/dcp.asp.

Ballmer contends Microsoft will continue to invest development resources in Microsoft Error Reporting. Plans to make the approach a more supple tool for customers will include an option for customers to visit a Web site where they can learn more about errors they report and sometimes fix them, see the history of their error reports and view information on Microsoft's efforts to fix them, and to create user-friendly ways for customers to send more "nuanced feedback … about crashes, but also about features that don't work the way or as easily as people would like."

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.

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