John's World: Down with Updates!

December 9, 2011 09:13 PM

Protesting is all the rage, and since I apparently slept through my generation’s moment in the streets—the ’60s—I hope it’s not too late to voice my outrage and compose an incomprehensible placard to wave.

Here’s what I’ve got so far. Check and see if you agree. I’m against:


  1. Picking on bankers. Really. Only a few really rotten apple-stealers have made life miserable for the folks you and I have known as friends and business partners. To be sure, I wouldn’t want my sister to marry one, but that’s only because she’s already hitched.
  2. Individually wrapped cookies. Do they think I have time to burn? I’m especially against those stretchy heat-welded wrappings that cannot be pulled apart at the seams without unduly alarming your plane seatmates.
  3. Right-lane passers. Surely there is some way to program their cars to stall whenever they pull this despicable stunt. Or gently explode.

Just job security. But what really has been bugging me for the past few years is the stream of seemingly helpful updates for products I own. Since even your toothbrush has a microchip these days (face it—you’re not sure that is an exaggeration, are you?), every device has an onboard computer that needs programming with software or firmware. Firmware, for those of you who are not so techno-hip, is software that has been left out in the sun for a while.

Anyway, hardworking programmers eventually realized that once they had finished with a product, the need for programmer services dramatically dropped. Oh, sure, there was ongoing demand for people to correct all the mistakes in the original version but certainly not enough work for teams of coders.

They did what any insecure employee would do—they made work up out of thin air. They call it "updates." Ideally, these programming improvements make the product better, but the dirty little secret is that they mostly just keep fingers on keyboards in Silicon Valley.

So it is that we suffer the phenomenon of "feature bloat," where relatively simple interfaces become laden with oodles of extra options. Whether anybody needs them or not. For the user in the field, these show up as extra screens with cryptic choices that act as distracting camouflage for the two or three options we use 99% of the time.

Making room for these new choices requires changing familiar user interface patterns. For example, when you have finally learned how to program a friend into your smartphone by
hitting "star-4-7-yes," you find that this combination now signs you up for a new monthly payment plan.

Updates are often downloaded automatically, so your computer, phone or tractor can periodically exhibit sudden attention problems. Disturbingly, this often occurs right in the middle of use, so that your normally sluggish Internet connection mysteriously slows to sub-dialup speed. Then, of course, it wants to restart—and nothing good can happen then.

Do I really need this? Updates in operating systems trigger the need for updates in programs or apps. You gotta admire those nerds for sticking together as they stick it to the users. Updates also carry their own multiple (and probably unintentional) little flaws, which will, of course, be corrected in the next update.

Curiously, updates seldom seem to make life easier. Despite adding umpteen updates to my guidance system, we are getting further from my ideal command screen: "Touch GO to plant this here field real purty."

Even that most passive of pastimes, television, is subject to unwanted progress. You finally figure out how to record all your favorite episodes of "Dirty Jobs," for example. This is not easy, since the remote has more buttons than the left end of an accordion. And they are marked about as clearly. Then your cable/satellite company "upgrades" its program programming, which is not only remarkably redundant but also terrifically annoying. Your little cheat sheet for setting the timer is now useless and you are forced to resort to reading instructions or (more likely) randomly
selecting options to see what happens. And the hours pass.

There should be some cost-benefit calculations done before any more updates are administered to an unsuspecting consumer population. "New and improved" is fine for some, but there should also be an option for "old and familiar." After all, it works well for friends.

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