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The update debate: Why the latest version of software isn’t always the best

are software updates always for the best not windows update
Image used with permission by copyright holder
If there is one thing that distinguishes the modern state of software, it’s how the software is updated. The days of shipping a patch out on physical media are long gone. Today, patches are instantaneous. It seems many applications and programs can’t go more than a few days without needing something tweaked or fixed, and if users don’t see such updates, they assume the developers are resting on their laurels.

And yet, despite the ease with which fixes can be applied, it’s not necessarily true that having the most up-to-date software is a plus. AMD’s new Crimson drivers are a recent example. Fans jumped on the revamped graphics card back-end, hopeful of the performance and usability improvements it could bring. But some of them were faced with graphical glitches and overheating GPUs thanks to a fan speed bug.

Using fans as testers is great in theory, but puts them on the receiving end of the most disastrous bugs.

Although updates are easier than ever to release and apply, they are rarely mandatory. There are occasional jumps that will cut off users who aren’t willing to perform the update, but rarely is anyone forced to do so. With that in mind, we thought we would ask the question — is it worthwhile to always update to the latest software?

There are certainly some that argue for that. Many companies have taken advantage of user desire to run the latest build, as soon as possible. Perhaps it’s thanks to a climate where our phones are telling us every five minutes that something needs updating, or simply because, as content and products come faster and faster, we want them to improve more quickly, as well.

Using fans as test dummies

The Windows Insider program is the perfect example of how companies are using fans. Microsoft was able to secure itself over a million beta testers for Windows 10, none of whom it had to pay a cent. In years gone past, QA was handled exclusively by in-house employees, a third party company, or at worst, the friends and family of the developers. Most, if not all of those people would require compensation of some kind.

Using fans as testers is great in theory. The fans receive the software first, and the company receives free feedback. But it also puts loyal followers at the receiving end of the most disastrous bugs.

AMD’s Crimson was an important update, but its initial release had a major bug Image used with permission by copyright holder

Some of the latest Windows 10 updates have been far from perfect. The most recent, dropped in November, had to be temporarily pulled due to a privacy bug that reset user privacy settings without their knowledge. The issue is an example of why some people, companies, and governments prefer to stay well away from the latest releases. And as the needs of a user or group of users become more critical, their willingness to adopt an update early decreases.

Older can be better, or at least necessary

The U.S. Navy is currently spending millions of dollars on legacy support from Microsoft for the thousands of systems it has in operation that are still running Windows XP. Why is it running an operating system that is almost a decade and a half old?

For the same reason that a Windows 3.1 bug caused the closure of an entire French airport just last month, and the same reason huge industries still use equipment that requires the use of 3.5-inch floppy disks. Often, an older technology was built with decades of use in-mind, so upgraded alternatives weren’t made, or threaten to break existing functions.

But it’s not just companies that have a good reason to stay technologically in the past. Take the case of George R.R. Martin, the writer of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, more commonly known as Game of Thrones. He’s a big fan of retro technology, even borrowing Ernest Cline’s Delorean at one point. However, it’s in his writing habits that he betrays his love of older software.

While Martin could certainly afford to purchase himself a high-end PC to tap away, he actually uses an ancient DOS based computer that is completely disconnected from the Internet. Even more retro, he uses the ’80s word processor WordStar 4.0 to write everything, including the ASOIAF books.

Why? Because it doesn’t have any features he doesn’t needs. “It does everything I want a word processing program to do and doesn’t do anything else,” he said on a talk show interview. Using the older device likely affords him some unique security benefits, as well.

He doesn’t have to worry about it trying to correct his spelling, which could become quite tiresome with character names like Daenerys Targaryen and Joffrey Baratheon. Nor does he have to be concerned about viruses or people hacking his machine to try and find out what he’s writing.

George R. R. Martin Still Uses A DOS Word Processor

This is a way of thinking that’s worth consideration. While it’s exciting to be on the cutting edge, running betas, and accessing new features, it does have inherit problems. And the benefits of the cutting-edge aren’t always apparent in everyday use.

This one is on the developers

It’s not just down to us to make sure we only install software and updates that we know won’t be harmful to our system. It’s down to the developers, too. QA has become less of a focus for software developers in recent years as the ease of patching programs have improved. That leaves users at risk.

Changing the software used by millions with a single update is a big responsibility.

I’m not suggesting we would all be better off running DOS off a tape drive, but it is important to keep updates in perspective. The ability to change software used by millions of people within minutes — as in the case of Windows update — is a huge responsibility. It must be wielded with responsibility, and it should be recognized that those who don’t jump on the latest technological bandwagon aren’t always luddites. Updates, particularly to critical software, deserve to be viewed with skepticism.

Jon Martindale
Jon Martindale is the Evergreen Coordinator for Computing, overseeing a team of writers addressing all the latest how to…
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