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Something Happened: The origin of day-one patches

Canadian software houses were fast and loose places in the 1980s.

Sebastian Anthony
Bill Gates in Canada, in 1985, standing in front of an IBM PC/AT running Windows 1.0 (which had just been released). This image has nothing to do with this story; I just thought it was nice.
Keith Beaty/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Welcome to the first episode of Something Happened, where we recount exceptionally funny, daft, or just downright odd tales shared by the readers of Ars Technica. The only rule of this recurring column is that the story will always be job-related: in the office, up a telephone pole, in a client's basement, etc.
To begin with we have a wonderful story from a software house in Canada—of all places—at some indeterminate point in the 1980s. I'll hand you over to the storyteller, who we'll call... hmm... Benton. Yes, that's a good Canadian name.
* * *
"We were developing a new product with the first sale scheduled to be to a very large American corporation," Benton told me while sipping a Bloody Caesar over a hearty brunch last Sunday morning. "Development being what it is, we were not going to meet the schedule and ship the product before the end of the quarter, although we would be able to deliver a couple of weeks later.
Another nice photo of Gates and Windows 1.0, from 1986. Gates had just become a billionaire at the age of 31. Life was good.
Enlarge / Another nice photo of Gates and Windows 1.0, from 1986. Gates had just become a billionaire at the age of 31. Life was good.
Joe McNally/Getty Images
"Sadly, we were informed by the buyers that their budget would evaporate at the end of the quarter and they would have to start the approval process all over again, resulting in a delay of many months. On our side, not getting the income in that quarter had serious implications for our company being able to survive past the end of the quarter—the joys of startups.
"It was all looking very dire until somebody came up with a seriously audacious 'creative accounting' manoeuvre: We would ship empty boxes to the customer before the end of the quarter and they would happily pay for them. They would then return all the boxes, unopened, as being defective... And we would deliver the actual product when it became available!
"Since the boxes were not opened at their end, nobody would 'officially' know what happened. It all went off without a hitch and we delivered full boxes two weeks later—and then everybody started breathing again."
* * *
So, there you have it: Benton and his colleagues didn't know it at the time, but they probably initiated a butterfly effect that would eventually result in a plague of publishers shipping unfinished software and games that must then receive a hefty patch either on launch day or soon after.
If you have your own story to share, drop us a line via the Ars contact form. Select "Something Happened" from the drop-down box. Your story will be anonymised by default, unless you ask us not to.

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