Closing the door on updates – The Open Source Column

Should a good software update always leave a way back, wonders Simon...

By its very nature, computer software needs to evolve. Updates, for an abundance of reasons, are the nature of the beast, and for all the frustration that they sometimes cause, I generally can’t help but feel that we win more than we lose with them. As such, when I’m offered an update for a piece of software, my immediate reaction is more to consider it, rather than click on Cancel, as I was once upon a time more likely to do.

Sadly, the process of the update has been abused by the powers that be in the world’s marketing departments. That, or it’s been seen as a delivery mechanism by which to enact decisions made by well-dressed people in boardrooms, who eat garibaldi biscuits and help themselves to expensive coffee. It seems a pity that garibaldis are treating the ill-deserving.

Microsoft, you won’t be surprised to hear, led the way on this a few years ago when it sent a new version of Internet Explorer to people via the Windows Update service. Once upon a time, Windows Update was just for that: updating Windows, keeping the bugs out, keeping features up to date. Sadly, over time, it became something of a software shanty town, even at one stage downloading anti- piracy snooping software to people’s PCs. You remember the wonderfully monikered Windows Genuine Advantage?

But I’m increasingly thinking that there’s a special place on the naughty step that should be reserved for those who offer updates for their software, with no way whatsoever to roll back any chances that have been made. This is the kind of thing that works as a deterrent to users, meaning that they’re put off keeping software up to date. All you need is one badly written pop-up spouting about how things are irreversible, and most level-headed people would simply wonder why they should bother. With good reason, too.

The update where the gate locks behind you and closes off a path is an evil, and not always a necessary one. There are times when security dictates that something needs updating, but there’s an inherent arrogance in the assumption that said update itself is going to fix leaks without springing new ones. That said, where a vulnerability has been detected, common sense does need to come into play. But the update where new features are being brought in? Something surely isn’t right there.

I list this right next, incidentally, to any download that casually seems to think that what I’ve been missing in my life is the Yahoo! toolbar. Or the Bing toolbar. Or the Ask one. What’s wrong with a dose of manners?

Ultimately, what I want from a software update is confidence. I want to know that it’s worth me applying it in the first place, and part and parcel of that is me also wanting to know that if all goes not quite to plan, I’ve got an escape route. That I can recover some vestige of the application as I was using it before. It sounds in some cases like a pipe dream. However, in some very expensive buildings it’s merely collateral damage in the greater quest of biscuit consumption.