It's a great time to be a consumer who's plugged in to the digital world.
Flip the switch on any smartphone, tablet, console, laptop, smart TV or just about any other piece of consumer-electronics hardware, and you're offered a seemingly endless list of options. From games to paying bills, instant messaging to watching movies, the number of software applications is soaring.
But there's a secret behind the curtain: Somebody has got to make sure all of that stuff works.
Enter the burgeoning industry of app testers or, as the industry calls itself, quality assurance, or QA.
Because when you think about it, with the incredible number of applications on the market, there seems to be almost an equal number of places to use the applications. If you develop a gaming app, it must work on Apple, Android and Windows-based smartphones. Consider also the near-infinite number of updates to all of those software systems. Throw on top of that the vast number of phone manufacturers, from Motorola Inc. to LG Corp. to Samsung.
It's no wonder that software testing has become an industry in itself. It runs the gamut from generalist firms that handle testing for all types of industries, such as QualiTest Group, a Fairfield, Conn.-based company with operations in San Diego and San Francisco. There are also specialist firms, like Testronic Laboratories in Burbank, Calif., which targets a niche group: the film, television and video game industries. One of Testronic's biggest clients is Rovio Entertainment Ltd., the Finnish developer of the Angry Birds game.
It's not just fun and games, either. LogicNext Inc., in Pasadena, Calif., provides testing for ho-hum industries like petroleum and paperboard manufacturing, as well as for sexier sectors like automobiles and telecommunications.
The global market for software testing is projected to post a compound annual growth rate of about 11 percent between 2016 and 2020, according to the Irish firm Research and Markets.
The stakes are high. Because if a developer releases a brand-new app to the public and it doesn't work, it could be devastating for its business plan, says Dan McFall, vice president of mobility solutions at Mobile Labs Inc. in Atlanta, which provides cloud-based testing platforms.
“For, say, a hotel booking application, if you cannot actually book a hotel room, that will be more frustrating than a typo in the small print,” McFall says.
If a consumer tries to use your app and it fails the first time, you have probably lost that customer, says Alex Rodov, founder and managing partner at QA Consultants in Toronto.
“It has to be bulletproof,” Rodov says. “The app has to work on every device under the sun.”
The proliferation of device manufacturers, and hardware and software platforms, means that an industry had to be invented to deal with the overwhelming testing requirements. It's sort of like the United Nations, which needs an army of translators to help people speaking different languages communicate with each other.
“The challenge for all app developers, especially enterprise app developers, is that there really are not any tools provided by the major mobile application platform vendors to do this, outside of brute force testing on handheld devices,” McFall says.
It's a strange industry for at least a couple of reasons, Rodov says. For one, the work never ends — in a most literal sense.
“If we had our way, we'd be testing all the time,” he says.
For small game apps, Testronic can wrap up testing in about a week. But large games require ongoing testing that can last for years. Part of the reason for the endless testing is that many new programs require continually downloadable content, uploaded to the game on a perpetual basis.
Another strange part of the QA sector is that the testing is done when the client says it's finished, not when the tester says everything has checked out.
“Every client asks us: ‘When can we release? Are we good to go? Can we press the green button and let the masses in?’” Rodov says. “We tell them, 'That's your decision.'”
“We can tell them they are 90 percent ready, but the other 10 percent is not ready. It's for them to make a business decision,” Rodov says.
Does app testing conjure up a picture of a laboratory, where dozens of techies sit in front of an array of computers, smartphones and other devices? Where each tester presses buttons, clicks on links and manually ensures that the program works the way it's supposed to?
For many QA companies, that picture is misleading. Much of the testing work can be automated. In fact, it's almost necessary to some degree that tests are carried out in an automated fashion; otherwise, the process could take forever, Rodov says.
“Very little is done by people sitting there, clicking on a button,” he says.
QA Consultants has set up banks of phone cradles, plugged into a master computer, which runs testing protocols across all the various software platforms simultaneously.
Other software-testing companies, however, do maintain armies of high-tech testing employees. Testronic, for example, has more than 600 testers, working in Southern California, as well as in the United Kingdom and in Poland, running manual tests on the games and entertainment apps that its clients develop.
So, yes, it is possible to have a career doing nothing but playing video games all day.
For more-practical software apps, QA firms use a variety of tools to ensure they work properly. Many testers use both functional testing tools and performance tools, McFall says. Functional tools test things like whether the information screens have the correct information on them, or if pressing a certain button does what the app says it will do.
Performance tools test things like what happens when a huge crowd of people start using an app all at the same time, or how the app performs in an area with poor cell phone coverage.
At first blush, it would seem that the people who hire testing companies would be the developers, either an individual who has created an app, or a software company.
Flybits Inc., a testing company in Toronto, works with clients who typically employ their own in-house teams of testers to run checks on the apps and software that their own company has developed. But those companies also want a second opinion, so they farm out some of their work to Flybits, too, says Steven D'Costa, a product engineer for Flybits in its Palo Alto, Calif., office.
For QA Consultants, however, their customers increasingly aren't the developers, but instead are the money behind the developers.
“Investors in small startups want to be able to sleep at night,” Rodov says. “They've put their money into this startup, and they think it will be the next big thing. But they need someone else to tell them that the app is working the way they're being told it works.”