Death by a thousand updates

Rapid release cycles for operating systems and devices are worse than counterproductive

Death by a thousand updates

It was a simpler time when Patch Tuesday was the most significant update cycle in technology. Of course there were patches and updates for other operating systems and applications, but the time between them was typically lengthy.

Back then, operating systems had long lifecycles. Full releases were several years apart, with minor updates in between. Our mobile phones never received updates, but of course we didn’t have smartphones and tablets as we’ve come to know them today. Our home entertainment systems were the same, as were our cars. Software updates happened at work, on an unusual day.

Today, everything needs updates, seemingly constantly. This trail leads from the smallest to the largest technology elements in our modern daily lives.

I turn on the TV and the streaming media box either immediately requests an update or has completed one, and the interface has changed. The TV itself prompts for a software update. My mobile phone is telling me 22 apps need to be updated -- 30 on my tablet. My laptop pops up a reminder about new updates that need to be installed every day, and as I’m in the middle of something important, I tell it not today. Unbelievably, Windows users are losing that capability, as Microsoft has begun forcibly upgrading Windows 7 systems to Windows 10. Frankly, that should be a crime.

In my server room, the virtualization platform has a bunch of available updates, as do the VMs themselves, the BIOS on the host servers, the OS on the storage, and the firmware on the switches connecting everything. I could literally spend an entire week doing nothing but downloading and installing updates to the various parts of the lab, mostly for little or no actual gain.

The fact is, just because updates are available for a given piece of technology does not mean that they are required or even that they will improve anything. The updates may, in fact, reduce functionality or introduce problems where there were none before. This rule applies to everything from the 99-cent app on your phone to the OS on a $250,000 storage array. Updating for the sake of keeping current generally causes more problems than it could ever solve. It’s downright unhealthy.

Now, if an update brings specific requirements or addresses critical security issues, that changes the game -- but if the change log contains nothing germane to normal operation, you shouldn’t feel the need to upset the apple cart.

The worst offenders of this maddening update treadmill are Apple and Microsoft. There is absolutely no reason that we should see the release of a full operating system in less than a year’s time. This insanity must stop.

Apple, specifically, is doing nobody any favors by pumping out Mac OS X 10.9 on Oct. 22, 2013; Mac OS X 10.10 on Oct. 16, 2014; and Mac OS X 10.11 on Sept. 30, 2015. Before these sprints, Mac OS X enjoyed an 18- to 24-month release cycle, and the world was better for it. The releases were more mature and stable, and the users didn’t have a sword over their heads to upgrade because other software was running alongside this fast-paced release cycle. It might seem that Apple has accelerated the pace simply to encourage its users to buy newer hardware. Nah, that couldn’t be it.

Microsoft is joining that party. Historically, big Microsoft desktop and server releases were many years in the making, with Windows XP living an exceptionally long time. Most releases were at least three years apart.

Recently, however, that’s changed. Windows 7 to Windows 8 was three years. Windows 8 to Windows 8.1 was less than a year, but only because Windows 8 was a disaster. Windows 10 came roughly 20 months later, followed by the version 1511 update in four months, and Microsoft has been forcing Windows 10 down everyone’s throats ever since.

Don’t we have enough to do? Do we really need to reserve a few hours each week to update myriad devices, large and small, or deal with the fallout the updates cause? On the business side, this race is causing big problems with users because companies can't keep up with the cycles and users have possibly three different Windows versions between work and home, all with different interfaces.

Rapid release cycles are not good for anyone or anything. All they'll do is generate resentment from the masses because they’re becoming a constant hassle. That’s certainly not good for the most important reason that we install updates: to plug security holes. The faster pace may help boost the corporate coffers in the short term, but in the long run users will jump off the treadmill. The next time Apple and Microsoft update an operating system, they should make it count.

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