My Computer is a Hamster

[originally posted at Slaw.ca, November 8, 2010]

My computer will never be the same again. If you click on any program and select the About option (often on the Help menu), you can see what version of the program you have. Google Chrome tells me I’m at 8.0.552.0. But part of me is convinced that if I check back in an hour or so, that number will have gone up, or at least gotten longer. The pace of incremental change to my software applications and operating systems is accelerating. My computer is on a hamster wheel. And these minor changes, happening behind the scenes, can have an impact on your day to day technology use.

It’s not the upgrades, which I tend to make with some plan in mind. Ben Schorr did a great job of reviewing when to upgrade in July. It’s the behind-the-scenes changes that are on my mind. I got up one recent Saturday morning to find out that a Windows XP laptop no longer recognized its new-ish battery. Huh? Turns out Windows Automatic Update made some change and it caused the problem. A quick fix (using a Microsoft Fixit utility) solved it but it meant (a) I was doing some unplanned tech support and (b) my laptop needed to stay plugged in to work.

On the one hand, updates are often important. I’m pretty religious about applying them and like to know what they are fixing. Sometimes, though, I feel like a Congressman with a 1,000 page bill to read in 15 minutes. When Microsoft releases 49 updates in a day, I’m going to install them without spending much time on what they are fixing.

My most important application is my Web browser, Google Chrome. It is a gateway to e-mail and research. And it is now on a high speed release cycle, despite the suggestion that I not read too much into the increasing numbers! I like the release early, release often philosophy. If a program has a new, stable, useful feature, I’d love to have it sooner rather than wait for it to be buried in a bloated new package. It also fits in with my philosophy on change: give me small, regular change all the time, rather than huge, infrequent changes that I have to absorb all at once.

This rapid, incremental updating works best with a narrowly tailored application, like a Web browser or a time-and-billing program. If you’ve got an application with lots of integration to other programs – or a complicated environment, with multiple users or computers – the hamster wheel may come off its axle with this sort of constant inching forward between versions.

You can always opt out. But if you do, you may find that update number 86 requires update number 35. You then experience a time warp as you run through a large accumulation of updates all at once. That may still be more manageable than having it happen behind the scenes. Even though I use the automatic update features in both Windows and Ubuntu (here’s the one for Apple), I make them wait on my primary PC. That way I can run the update when I know I’ve got a block of time to fix anything that happens to break. Sometimes I get an error that a Windows update was unable to be completed. If that happens, you can go directly to the Microsoft Office and Windows update to make sure you haven’t missed anything.

Ubuntu does a good job of wrangling all the updates into one stream. On Windows, I have an Adobe updater, an Apple updater, and a Java updater. Each program monitors its own updates, and nags me when there’s something to do. I’ve even seen some PC makers add in their own updaters. The updates seem to come more frequently or maybe its just that, as more software adds an updater, I’m more aware than in the past.

The Cloud can be an answer for those wanting to avoid upgrading. In effect, you are trading upgrades for this constant updating. As software-as-a-service providers develop an enhancement or fix a bug, it’s rolled into the live product. These sorts of updates are less likely to have an impact on your own technology, since the change happens on their servers. Cloud applications are also often walled off from other applications, even when they are integrated. A change to your hosted case management product will not necessarily have any impact on your hosted e-mail access.

You should be aware of how your systems – laptops, desktops, handhelds and phones – handle their updates. If you suddenly notice something odd on a computer that was working the day before, check to see if there has been an update. Updates, unlike upgrades, are usually not optional. Failing to make updates can leave security holes in your Web browser or PDF reader or other software. Other updates can mean a sudden improvement in your technology use with the addition of a new – and easy to digest – feature. Keep an eye out for those, as the hamster wheel spins around.

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