7 Prominent Software Bugs That Became Practical Features

21 Jan, 2015
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A bug is often seen as an ‘evil’ in software development. Infact, there are software bugs that have caused unimaginable havoc in the world. So, the disdain towards bugs in software development is conceivable. Even the smallest unwanted glitch in the design has potential for dangerous outcomes. However, surprisingly, there is also a different side to this coin. A quick peek into the history of software development reveals some really startling stories of bugs that became full-fledged features which have, in turn, added a completely new, unexpected and useful dimension to the software product.  

It was in September 1947 that computer pioneer Grace Murray Hopper was working on Harvard University Mark II and first used the term “bug” in an account. While working on the project, Hopper found some unwarranted computational problems in the machine. After a lot of investigation, he found that there was a moth stuck between the relay points. He carefully removed the moth and termed it as ‘bug’ in the log book. This was the first time anybody officially recorded a term as a bug. But, today we term any error or glitch in a program as a bug.

Transforming Legendary Bugs to Practical Features

Why are software developers geniuses? Because they see a problem from a different perspective. It is quite natural that developers won’t have a solution for everything. They do things differently and figure out how to turn those problems into features. This is why bug tracking is so crucial for them. Often bug tracking leads to new features that end up becoming a huge success.

If project managers and developers can deal with both bugs and features in the same place, it helps them  decide what should be pushed into the next release. In many cases, project managers lay more emphasis on new features while considering a new release. They foresee working on new features worthy than investing time and effort to fix bugs. There are several instances where users and developers have gained immensely from what may at first have appeared to be a bug.

Let’s take a quick view of some the legendary bugs that developers have transformed to features of the products.

  1. Undo Feature in Gmail – gmailYes, the Undo feature that you now see on Gmail, actually was born out of a fault. Gmail went through a 5 second delay when processing an email message. The developers, who were working on Gmail, implemented an Undo option and smartly turned the problem into a feature. The new feature simply let users put a stop to emails before they would have been sent anyway.
  2. Hide Your Files Feature in Unix Linux – It is one of the unique features of Linux and Unix. Developers smartly turned an error in Unix, which wasn’t fixed later. The virtual file system is a file system that helps user to hide the different file systems complexities. Users can hide their files just by adding dot before the file name.
  3. Green Light Feature – It was when developers were designing IBM 3278, they found that computer terminals are flickering when a new symbol was downloaded. They identified the green light to be a hardware bug. The bug turned out to be useful as it let users know when their computers were doing something. Later, the bug was developed into later versions of the system.
  4. Lifesaving Research – This is one of the most fascinating stories of a bug transforming into a feature. The developers of World of Warcraft (WoW) had introduced the Corrupted Blood Spell in 2005. The plan was to inflict the game’s characters with ill health in a controlled manner. But, something went wrong in the process, as a result the infectious disease, which was supposed to last a short period, escaped and caused death and havoc in the virtual world of WoW. Later, epidemiologists use the experience for research into methods for containing pandemics in the real world.
  5. Gaming Feature war_mof_worldcraftVideo game developer Tomohiro Nishikado had developed a new platform for the popular game Space Invaders in 1978 to drive the game. He actually was not satisfied with the way the game was progressing. The game’s demands for processing power took the system to the limit of its capacity. Nishikado left the bug in the game, and became the first person to introduce the concept of increasing difficulty in game play.
  6. Myspace Profile Editing myspacce Many don’t know that a bug is behind the feature that lets you edit the HTML/CSS of Myspace profiles. It came to be known that Myspace used this bug significantly to gain popularity over other competitors.
  7. Beating a Chess Champion – It was in 1997 that a software bug created havoc in the sports arena, specifically, in a Chess tournament. Garry Kasparov, the renowned chess grandmaster was defeated by Deep Blue, an IBM computer. During the game, Deep Blue’s smart moves took Kasparov completely off guard. Later in 2012, it came to the limelight that Deep Blue’s strategic moves were basically the result of a bug.

If you are aware of more such bugs that became features, we’d love to hear them, let us know in the comments!

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Anirban Guha
Software Engineer at coMakeIT

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