Why does your appraisal software crash more than ever?

With the mandatory UAD updates, the industry is full of complaints about some software vendors' latest versions crashing all the time.  But the jump in crashes didn't start with the UAD — it just made it worse, and drew more attention to a long-standing problem.  In fact, ask around and you'll see that over the last couple of years, since about 2008, appraisers have complained more and more about software crashes and stability.  But why?

The answer lies in the fact that even if your software stays the same, your PC doesn't.  Frequent Windows updates to protect you from hackers and viruses, along with completely new versions of Windows, are constantly changing your appraisal software's environment.  So if your appraisal software is using old code from the 1990s, it was written for a completely different world than the one that the software is running in today.  Even well-written old code is likely to break under those conditions.  Crashes and other problems are the inevitable result.

For a software developer to avoid that fate, it isn't easy, nor is it cheap — but it is absolutely critical, and as the UAD debacle for some points out, it's urgent too.  It's just that the urgency only becomes apparent after it's too late.  Way too late.

That's why, back in 2006, we embarked on a long term multi-million dollar project to write a completely modern new appraisal engine from scratch.  It took many programmers the better part of two years to build the new engine, code-named "Armstrong", using a clean-sheet design.  Not one line of code came from our old system.  Today, "Armstrong" is what's inside our new TOTAL 2011 program. And not surprisingly, TOTAL 2011 is the only appraisal software to pass Microsoft's functionality and crash tests.

You may have heard otherwise.  For example, Bradford touts its current ClickFORMS product as being Windows XP certified.  But how can a program compiled today, with UAD features recently tacked on, be submitted and approved under a certification scheme that Microsoft shut down many years ago?  Nostalgia isn't a "feature" when it comes to certification.

Even when it was possible, the Windows XP certification was a self-testing process essentially on the "honor system", so companies could fudge the rules and not get caught.  But with Windows Vista, Microsoft eliminated that possibility and more by forcing software vendors to send their products to specific testing laboratories under Microsoft's supervision.  And then in Windows 7, they made it even more strict, requiring objective testing data to be sent directly to Microsoft.

Neither ClickFORMS nor any other appraisal software — other than ours — has passed since.

That matters even if you don't use Windows 7 or Vista, because the strict programming discipline that was required for TOTAL 2011 to pass the certification tests also make it stable even on older systems like Windows XP.  And of course, you can't buy a new PC or laptop and get it with anything but Windows 7 anyway, so being certified on the current version of Windows is what matters most out in the real world.

That doesn't mean other appraisal software can't run on Windows 7.  It just has problems. For example, other appraisal software vendors require you to disable the User Account Control (UAC) in Windows 7.  They act like it's no big deal, but UAC is a major defense against hacking.  When you turn it off to accommodate outdated appraisal software, you open your computer up to anyone who wants to take control of it — even if you have great anti-virus protection.  By definition, anti-virus software is always one step behind the hackers, since new virus definitions are only developed after a virus has been found "in the wild" and studied. UAC by contrast is a proactive always-on defense against giving up full control of your computer, even if a brand new virus infects you.  Disabling it isn't good. It's there for a reason.  That's why TOTAL 2011 doesn't force you to disable it — it's written for Windows 7, so it knows how to work with UAC.

The examples go on and on, but they all point at the same conclusion:  Old software technology causes lots of problems.  It doesn't mean it's "tried and true".  It means it's likely to crash, and cause other problems too.

So why don't the software vendors just keep up, and write new code?

In general, they don't because selling old software is cheap.  (Or at least it seems cheap in the short run.)  They don't have to spend the millions of dollars or work round the clock for years to develop entirely new code. They can keep adding features onto rickety old code written by programmers who haven't worked there in a decade, and they get to charge appraisers just as much or more than before.

Eventually, though, that mentality results in disasters like the UAD crashes, and worse.  Old code is notoriously finicky, and one little change in one place causes new bugs to pop up elsewhere.  So, what you would assume is a simple addition of new UAD dropdowns and picklists turns into a nightmare of seemingly scattered system freezes, aborted reports, and lost files, even when doing things you'd think are unrelated to UAD — like adding a couple of photos or changing a font.  Those software vendors then blame it on your PC, or your anti-virus program (after they made you disable your Windows 7 UAC hacker protection, do you really want to disable your anti-virus product too?), when it's really the result of them cutting corners by not spending the money on writing new, modern, well-structured code.

Like most things, those chickens eventually come home to roost.  Losing your valued customers, people who have been loyal to you for decades, is much more expensive than paying for more programmers and quality assurance staff.  In fact, it's so expensive that after nearly every major deadline-oriented transition of the past few decades — switching to the new URAR, moving to Windows, etc. — it seems that one or more appraisal software companies go out of business because they cut corners and tried to develop software on the cheap.  They lose their core customers and eventually just die.

The death of a vendor isn't always caused by bugs or crashes of course.  Many times, because they've been allowed by your loyalty to make money even while under-investing in their main product, they fall prey to the same strategy when it comes to everything else you need.  In other words, if they don't hire enough programmers to keep their core code up to speed, they're unlikely to hire anyone to write tools for other platforms — like we do with DaVinci for iPhones, iPads, and Android, or our web-based systems like Mercury Network, XSites, and XSellerate.  Those things don't just fall out of the sky.  They cost a fortune to develop, but they keep loyal customers and they attract new ones.

Even when other vendors announce new tools, we often find that they didn't write them.  They just sell you a product developed by another company, and all too commonly they don't even make the changes needed for seamless integration.  Plus, there are always the problems with support, where the two companies point the finger at each other when you encounter a problem.  Or you find later that the other supplier canceled the product or even went out of business.  Your appraisal software vendor can't do anything because, once again, cutting corners left them with no code and no future.

So as you can see, there's a lot more to these crashes than meets the eye.  They aren't anything new, and they aren't isolated.  They're just one symptom of an overall dysfunctional philosophy on the part of your software vendor.  And with each day, that vendor falls further and further behind, even if it's not readily apparent, because of that culture of cutting corners and doing things on the cheap.

It doesn't work and it never has.  Developing technology that's adaptable, reliable, on time, and properly supported is extraordinarily expensive and time-consuming, and it requires both patience and urgency — seemingly contradictory skills — to be at the core of a software vendor's fundamental psyche.

If your vendor doesn't fit that description, if it isn't spending the time and the money to keep up with the rest of the world, if it isn't listening to you, then your problems will keep growing far beyond some crashes in the UAD update.  The time to switch is now, before it gets even worse, and before it drags you down with it.