Optimal Game Demos
Slaying the First Colossus

The Problem with Updates

App-store-icon.edited It has become standard practice to automatically update software and this, it is presumed, is a good thing. The more of my time is taken up with overseeing this "good thing", the more I begin to wonder about its merits.

Once upon a time, you knew where you were with a piece of software (game or otherwise). Some didn't work, and those that did had their share of bugs and problems that you simply got used to and accepted. Half the time you didn't know what was a bug and what was a feature, but it scarcely mattered because you had to make do with what you had – or, in the case of a game like Jet Set Willy, you could always resort to poking the code manually to fix the bugs, which was a necessity if you actually wanted to complete the game.

Patches took a while to emerge in home computing, but were always already in use from the early days of software. The very name "patch" refers to a section of punched paper tape that had to be literally patched into the original tape in order to repair bugs in the code. With the widespread adoption of patches in home computing, users had the option when facing a particularly crippling or nigglesome bug to check if there was a patch that would address their problem and then install it. Often, this would make the situation a little better, although software being what it is, each patch naturally carried the risk of introducing new bugs.

Nowadays, the role of the patch as an optional intervention has been extensively replaced with automatic updating – software simply installs its own patches, sometimes with the approval of the user, often under its own auspices. This, I presume, is supposed to have made matters better for all concerned... yet I am at a loss to see where the benefit to me is coming from. Scarcely a day goes by that Windows doesn't alert me of new updates, which I must manually review and decide whether or not to install, a policy that I might dub bureaucratic updating – all the joys of red tape, all the time. While security updates for Windows are certainly a necessity given the number of malicious hackers always looking to take vengeance on the monopolistic media monolith, I am astonished at the number of other software suppliers who use up the resources of my computer and internet bandwidth to robotically check for updates – irrespective of any utility this process may hold for me. I do my best to disable these interminable wastes of my time but sometimes there is no escape.

Of course, when I mentioned the software asking for the approval of the user, this isn't always the case. For instance, the Sony PS3 pursues a policy which could be described as Mafioso updating: it asks if you would like to update, but in fact you have no choice. If you decline the update, you can't run the software at all, making the users' acceptance of the update something of a formality. For the operating system updates, less forceful measures are used, but still it is clear that it for Sony's benefit that updating occurs, and only very rarely for the users – the update which removed users ability to run alternative operating systems being the most famous instance. Personally, I was not very pleased with the update that meant when scrolling through media the PS3 now hides the titles of all but the one you are looking at. No longer can my wife and I pleasantly saunter through our media and choose what to play; it must be done at the speed mighty Sony has decreed, or the pertinent alternative information is concealed from us. This particular update did nothing to improve our user experience, but we had little choice but to accept it.

Then there's Apple. Much as I have loved my iPhone, I can't say I have enjoyed the policy Apple uses for the updating of apps, which could be politely described as semi-automatic, or acerbically described as neurotic updating. The little iPhone apps just can't bear to be left alone, even when you aren't using the app in question. Games I have only played once still clamour for updating, joining the queue of nervous software applications that line up behind the door to the App Store, which generously displays a little bubble to let you know how many neurotic programmes are oh-so-desperate for you to update them. This has nothing to do with my needs or my usage or otherwise of those programs... as I say, they line up to be updated whether I use them or not. I found this so perpetually irritating that I eventually banished the App Store icon to the farthest corner of my iPhone interface and now very rarely add new apps. (The fact that each installed app also makes using iTunes slower, because it must backup each app every time for some reason, does little to encourage me in this regard).

It doesn't help that I begin to wonder exactly just what the extent of the changes that can be forced upon me by automatic updating might be. For instance, back while I was willing to let the neurotic iPhone apps get their fix of therapy, one of my toys – a shotgun SFX app – updated itself into an advertisement for a console game. The change was temporary, but no less annoying because of it. I have to wonder whether some of the demos I have downloaded for the PS3 will spontaneously decide to withdraw some of their features one day, perhaps because someone has decided the demo could be "improved". Given the ideas some developers have as to what a demo should offer, I don't really hold much confidence that this would be to my benefit, but since I cannot prevent it I have no choice but to see what happens.

It used to be the case that you would be able to learn what a game or software application was like. True, it would have its flaws and bugs, but you would learn what they were and get used to them. This option is now systematically denied to the user in a great many cases. With automatic and semi-automatic updating, the bugs and flaws in any software program you use is constantly in flux... you are apt to discover new flaws all the time, and might as well give up hope of getting used to specific problems since these will shift on a regular basis.

Lee Segall famously said "a man with one watch knows what time it is; a man with two watches is never quite sure." So it is with software updating. A person with one program knows what it does and doesn't do. A person with software that automatically updates is never quite sure.

Where do you stand on automatic software updates? Share your views in the comments!


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I'm with you. I uninstalled Google Chrome because it kept slowing down my computer with updates when I wasn't using it. If there were a way to shut that updater program off, I would have kept it. But as far as I could tell there wasn't.

I installed the Who are We At War With? app, but it keeps toggling between Eurasia and Eastasia.

Mory: glad it's not just me with this issue! I installed Google Chrome but couldn't work out what the advantage over Firefox was supposed to be so eventually gave up on it.

Andy: *chortle* "Big Brother is downloading repression updates... please wait." :)

As a developer just dipping my toe into the waters of auto-updating I must say that I like the possibilities it offers.

I want to be able to design my software in such a way that I can add features and fixes with a minimum of fuss or concern for the user. I want people to be using the most up-to-date version of my code becuase that is the best stuff I have available.

As a user, I usually like auto-updating. I use a lot of different software and I find it a pain to keep a list (which I do) of what software comes from which site, and then periodically search out all (if any) updates.

The problem is how updates are delivered, how we are alerted, and what (if any) meansures we have to take to apply the update. There are many ways to do this, some better than others.

Overall, I think I'd rather have auto-updates than not. The more software I have the less I want to spend my time searching out updates or looking for fixes. Just deliver that stuff to me in the simplest way possible, please.

Duncan: You make the argument in favour of auto-updating quite neatly here, and I'm not blind to it.

My argument to the contrary rests on the assumptions that (a) not all updates are to my advantage (b) it is not useful to update software I am not using and (c) I cannot gain intimate knowledge of software that is constantly in flux.

You say you don't want to spend your time looking for updates or fixes... are you happy that your computer's resources are being used to do this on your behalf, even with software you are not using?

Even if we accept that auto-updating may be a necessary feature today, what would the best practice for it be? And would it include the option to opt out of it? (And in this regard, is this something that should be offered at the level of the operating system rather than on a per-software basis)?

Thanks for sharing your views!

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