Perpetually Updating

Later, later, later. That's what we always say to those annoying popups. They hound us. They implore us to act on them. In the end, we find them supremely intrusive and frustrating. But it's the world we now live in. It's a place where nothing is produced in a Final version and we constantly have to live with those decisions.

We live in a world of the software update.

It Ships When It's Done

Before the internet was ubiquitous, it was commonplace to purchase software of any sort in one form. That was it. Whether you were purchasing a copy of Microsoft Excel or a Nintendo game, the copy you got was it. If something was broken, maybe there would be a "rev" or revision done for later copies. But in general, the product on the shelf was what everyone got.

Nintendo was famous for delaying games. Legendary developer and man behind Mario and Link, Shigeru Miyamoto put it succinctly.

“A delayed game is eventually good. A bad game is bad forever.”

Shigeru Miyamoto

Even further than that was the hardware that ran all these pieces of code. An NES, Atari 2600, TomTom, Nokia phone, or many other pieces of tech that we had in the home ran whatever came out of the box. What you got was what you got.

Windows Update

A funny thing happened in the late '90s. When Microsoft put Windows 98 on sale, a key component was a feature called Windows Update. This baked-in functionality was vital to the operating system. Microsoft was hedging its bets that when things needed to be fixed, they had a mechanism in place for everyone to do that. Yes, later copies of Windows could (and did) ship with "service pack" updates baked in. But incremental updates to fix problems or patch vulnerabilities were now in every computer running Win98.

The internet was exceptionally new and still in only a fraction of homes. However, by preseeding customers' computers with an update mechanism, Microsoft could make sure to keep Internet Explorer's dominance intact while also getting ahead of major issues.

What was more important than the Windows updating mechanism itself was the training of end-users to understand and embrace the concept of perpetual updates.

Patches, Definitions, Versions

From 1998 and on, the telephone connection going into people's computers served so many purposes. It got people online yet also let software phone home to look for updates. Antivirus software would constantly update with new "definitions" that would let it identify threats. Internet Explorer would update every so often, getting more bloated and ridiculous every time.

While other applications would bring updating functionality, the limited speed and feasibility of delivering these updates were still a few years off. Broadband was not around in any practical sense at the time. For the most part, when a new version of software was released, people generally went to the store to purchase it. In fact, Apple made these updates into major events.

Turn On And Wait

The first thing we see when unboxing any new piece of technology is an update message. Even when that product is brand new, the Version 1 software on it can easily be out of date. We usually see some message saying "an update is available" and we have to accept the update to even continue using the product.

This comes to a head annually on Christmas Day. Kids and teens are always receiving something that runs software. Generally, the activation servers and systems required to set up these devices become overwhelmed. There is an immense demand for mandatory updates and when tens of thousands of people are hitting the same servers constantly, it's a recipe for disaster. It's become so bad that the general advice is to open up tech gifts before giving them, set them up, then re-box them. This is all to avoid either a multi-hour waiting period for a system update or having to wait for the next day to get anywhere at all.

Apple famously ran into this issue for the first few years of iPhone releases. AT&T's servers would die within minutes of iPhones going on sale. And then people couldn't activate their phones for hours if not an entire day.

Old vs New

The biggest reminder of how things used to be is to fire up a product from the mid-90s or earlier. If I want to play Super Mario Bros. 3 or Pac-Man, all I have to do is plug in my NES or 2600 and press the power button. In less than a second, I have a game on my TV loaded and ready. I can pick any game at any time and instantly dive in. The version of the hardware in my entertainment center is the same version from 1985. It works and has never needed an improvement.

Compare that experience with me turning on my PS4 after sitting idle for a few months. Update after update is queued up. Even worse, I can't even use the console or launch a game until it's done. Everything now is required. The final issue with all of these is the reliance on the cloud. So many systems of both hardware and software depend on some server somewhere "out there" to answer a call. When a company goes out of business or decides to turn those servers off, the products we paid money for are now worthless. They don't run or do anything.

Less Cloud

Another side effect of constant updating is the removal of features. Tesla recently had many customer complaints for outright removing features from their cars. When all of these devices completely brick or become useless due to a company decision, we all lose. JIBO, which was a fun and entertaining robot designed to create emotional connections, lost 95% of its functionality when its parent company went out of business. Revolv, a home automation system, just shut down and rendered all its customers' hardware useless overnight.

All of this has pushed me to personally avoid products dependent on servers. It's more and more difficult these days, but we spend real money on these products. They can be made into paperweights at the flip of a switch.

The software update isn't going anywhere. Some of them are for good reasons such as for the security of our systems. However, there is nothing more satisfying than turning on my NES and playing RC Pro-Am in less time than it takes for my PS4 to even get to a launch screen.