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Proactive testing, or "this app can break"

Before Windows Vista came along and ruined it all, I previously used a bug in Windows Notepad to illustrate a problem testers often face. Vista ruined it by fixing the bug. If you have a version of Windows pre-Vista, you can still try this bug out. To reproduce the issue, open Notepad and type “this app can break”. Then save the file. If you were to close the file and re-open it, you’d find that your data has been corrupted.

Spoiler alert: If you want to research the Notepad problem and see if you can figure out what the issue is, then stop reading. I’ll tell you now it’s not an Easter egg, even though it looks like one.

On Windows XP Notepad calls a method titled IsTextUnicode when it opens a file. You can read about it here. The noteworthy text on this page is the following:

“This function uses various statistical and deterministic methods to make its determination […] These tests are not foolproof. The statistical tests assume certain amounts of variation between low and high bytes in a string, and some ASCII strings can slip through.”

What that text states is that Notepad uses a heuristic algorithm to open a file. Like any heuristic, it’s a solution to a problem that works most of the time. That’s why you’ve likely never seen that bug before. There are only a finite set of conditions that will cause it to fail.

This bug represents several problems that many testers face everyday:

  1. When the development solution is heuristic, or the number of variables involved makes a deterministic solution to the problem impossible to determine manually, testers have to expect that there are cases they will miss that could expose problems. For Notepad, that’s fine. For a heart monitor, it might not be.
  2. A method that a developer uses might work perfect for two uses (Word and Wordpad), but might fail when used for a third (perhaps inappropriate) application. We use so many third party languages and frameworks when we develop today, it’s impossible for a developer to keep all of the code they didn’t write straight.
  3. As testers, we often need to dig into a problem well past the point of saying: “I noticed what might be problem here.” If we understand why this is a problem, it helps us refine our models of the applications we’re testing. Now your model of Notepad should have changed to imply that Notepad uses a lot of the same code-base that Word uses. That’s interesting to know when testing because it gives you another oracle for what the correct behavior might be. It can also inform your conjectures for application behavior.

I was first given this testing/debug problem by James Bach a number of years ago (pre-Windows XP I think). I think I spent over an hour testing and researching until I came upon the root cause of the problem. It was a valuable lesson for me. Because of this experience, I now look forward to opportunities to help with issue research and isolation.

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