Bug Me Not

Raise your hand if you’re with me on having had it up to here with ‘helpful’ software update reminders, those increasingly pervasive, automated notification systems built into applications that let you know when you need to download a new revision. They’re meant to be helpful, but I find them intrusive and nagging.

Through these systems, it seems that I’m constantly confronted with entreaties to download and install new versions of everything I use, and those versions have been coming with greater and greater frequency, and have been weighing in at larger and larger megabytes totals. It’s become the norm rather than the exception for me to be confronted, each time I log into my computer, with pop-up reminders or system messages letting me know that a newer, better, more crucial change to my software is ready and waiting for me to grab.

Big and Small

Below: Read me… after you install all this other shit first. Adobe’s Reader software requires a complete restart after you update it.

In many cases, the smaller software publishers are just as guilty of this as the larger publishers, but Adobe deserves a special place in this canon for consistently pushing the most monolithic and unwieldy such updates around; a freshly installed copy of Adobe Acrobat, for instance, doesn’t allow you to start working until you’re confronted with a long laundry list of apparently important patches and updates that often require large investments of time and a complete reboot of your hardware. That’s just unacceptable.

Adobe Update Manager

In a larger sense, the ‘helpfulness’ of these notification systems is really a red herring-style distraction from the truth that most of this software is either untenably complex, tremendously ill-conceived or both. In fact, publishers are foisting on users a responsibility that should be theirs: software shouldn’t require these constant patches and updates at all, or they should do so only with extreme infrequency if they truly must.

Measure Once, Cut Over and Over

But publishers find it easier to continually push out reactive amendments to their programs than to ship rock solid software. And somehow, they’ve convinced themselves — and we’ve all bought into the false conceit — that an automated method of flagging new updates is an acceptable replacement for good, solid code that doesn’t require frequent revisions.

In fact, it’s my completely unscientific belief that the presence of these notification systems has an effect opposite to what consumers really want: rather than encouraging developers to ship unimpeachable code when a program is initially released, these systems make it easy to fall back on the contingency of pushing out patches that automatically tell the user, “We messed up, but we just showed you how to fix it, so now it’s your problem.” Software should make our lives easier, not shift responsibilities for its own maintenance to users.

This is all kind of an argument for applications on the network, where such updates and revisions are largely invisible to the user. One day I’ll give over to that concept entirely, because there’s no question that it’s the inevitable future for all programs. But in the meantime, I’m too fond of software on the desktop, where things run fast and responsively, with performance still leaps and bounds ahead of what’s possible inside a browser. Unfortunately, it just needs to be updated all the time.

  1. Hear, hear. One of the most irritating examples of this was a bug in a recent version of Quicksilver, which prompted me to download the same new version about fifteen times before I eventually had time to seek out a fix.

  2. Completely agree with you on how annoying these nagging update alerts have become. I also find Acrobat Reader to be particularly bad. On start-up, the software launches some kind of satellite update client that often stops the plug-in viewer launching properly when browsing in Firefox. And all just to tell me I can update version 7.0 to 7.0.1.

  3. Agreed, and yes, Acrobat Reader seems to be (a) one of the worst piece of software out there, and (b) one of the worst offenders in pushing huge, irrelevant updates, and doing so in the most intrusive way possible.

    An important angle, I think, is in how frequently you use the software. For things like Firefox, Textmate, xScope, and similar, that are part of my core tools for getting my job done, I like it that they tell me when an update is ready, because the features are often immediately useful.

    Skype seems to prove your point: The latest version for the Mac can’t copy-paste from IMs, and file transfers run 0.3K/s on a 100K connection. I’m looking forward to the update.

  4. I think that a centralized upgrade manager for both PC and Mac, something nicely open source with appropriate security would be great. Something to save reprogramming the same thing all the time and that perhaps allows for a choice between nightly svn, stable beta, and production by app. I posted a bit more at my website.

  5. I agree that core software should be upgraded. But they tend to be the ones that do it right (e.g. Firefox). Just timidly display an icon, or even silently download in the background, and at worst require you to restart the app, at best just let you keep running (Never, ever restarting the computer).

  6. Don’t forget Dashboard widgets.

    Each week I have to update at least two of the ten that are are in my config at present – and that involves the hassle of expanding the downloaded file, moving it to the Widgets directory and then removing/replacing the original. It’s the one thing that shits me without fail…

  7. I don’t bother upgrading Adobe Acrobat, I just wait for a couple of versions then get the new install of a disc. One of the best examples IMO is Steam, the game management system. I load it on startup and it quietly works in the background making sure all my games are up-to-date.

  8. The increasing file sizes really bother me.

    Why can’t they devise a program that deletes all the files you don’t need when you install the latest version? I’m sure my Mac is full of unwanted files.

  9. The problem is that the market does not reward those that take the time to release bug-free software. The first mover advantage is not insurmountable, but overcoming it often has more to do with marketing than it does with execution.

    That being said, there are projects that are working on reliability. One of the higher profile ones is Microsoft Labs’ Singularity OS, where the goal is to guarantee the security of the system and ensure that a failing piece of code only affects itself.

    For the updates, any modern linux distribution has had the updates thing down for years. I’m particularly fond of the Gentoo system because it’s easily tweakable, but for most the software update app in Ubuntu Dapper would be superb. It has clear options and descriptions, you check the software you want, hit a button and the entire system gets installed/updated without you having to reboot. I wish MS or Apple could have something half as nice for their OS. Both go halfway with OS updates, but neither opens their update mechanism to 3rd party developers.

  10. I’m of two minds about this stuff. I wholeheartedly agree that Adobe does an appalling job of handling updates – to the point that it encourages users to disable auto-updating as an annoyance and subverting the original purpose.

    On the other hand, I think automatic, unobtrusive app updating is a great thing. It shouldn’t be my job to keep my software up to date. Every app should know where to get its updates and when to get them. I like the settings in Textmate and Firefox for selecting which level of updates you want it to go after automatically (so you can cut down on the interruptions if you only care about big releases). Whenever it finds a new update, it downloads in the background and lets you know when its ready. Then its up to you if you want to relaunch now or dismiss and wait until you’re done.

  11. I was just cursing a blue streak about this last night. Like Brent said, I’m pretty sure Acrobat and/or Adobe Reader need to be updated just about every single time I use them. More infuriating still, the Adobe Update Manager usually needs to be updated itself before it can do its incredibly annoying job.

  12. Dear Software Industry,

    I really don’t want to update my software, so shut up about it already. I know it’s supposed to be in my best interests, but I use the software because I like it and it works just fine. In fact, the only time I should ever be prompted to download updates is when your program crashes on me — I’m restarting the app anyway. And at least it will seem proactive.



  13. This is a similar problem with the PC gaming industry as well. There’s increasingly a “release a buggy product now and patch it later” philoshophy among developers now that makes the console games all the more appealing…

  14. It’s funny that you mention this today. I started the upgrades. It required me to reboot 3 times (for each version number I was behind). With that, I decided to look for an alternative that wasn’t constantly nagging me.

    Check out Foxit Reader: http://www.foxitsoftware.com/foxitreader/foxitreader.zip

    BIG PLUS: The program is under 2MB. Plus it doesn’t have all that interface clutter (when you turn off the toolbars/advertisements).

    I hate Adobe now. Why is their program upwards 70mb if all I need it for is to read PDF files?

  15. I think the problem is three-fold. 1.) Users have gotten used to Microsoft and their unending assault of security patches; 2.) Users have gotten used to beta software which is constantly being tweaked; 3.) Developers know this and would rather take advantage of it than program stable code right out of the box.

    I like beta software. It gives developers the opportunity to run real-world tests to find problems not born out of simulated examples. But should it take the place of use-case scenarios in the lab? No. The term “constantly beta” bugs the hell out of me. The fact that Gmail is still beta bugs the hell out of me. But its free so I can’t complain too much. Photoshop on the other hand is not. Why am I being prompted to download Photoshop build, or whatever, as soon as I install CS2? Are you admitting that the product I just bought is inferior, Adobe? It’s my problem now that you put a half-program out there (for full price) that has holes all over it? Ridonkulous.

    I agree with Luke L, I just wait for a couple of new versions and then upgrade that way. If all of the applications that are on my computer operated in this new-patch/beta sort of way my computer would constantly be in a state of downloading and the hard drive would bulge to the brink of explosion.

  16. My favorite backup utility, SuperDuper!, notified me of a software update when I launched it a couple of weeks ago. I assumed it would provide a link to the software’s homepage, where I’d have to download the new version, then install and restart the program myself, BUT NO! SuperDuper! did everything automatically, without leaving the program.

    It downloaded the new version (showing a handy progress bar the whole time, with an explanation of what it was doing), installed it all by itself (again, explaining what was going on), and then restarted and took me right back to the screen I had been on.

    The whole process took all of five minutes, and I never had to leave the program. I’ve never seen a better updater.

  17. Feaverish: You’re right, SuperDuper does an outstanding job of managing automated updates. Its approach is almost completely transparent to the user, which makes such a big difference. But it’s also nice that updates are released only occassionally, not constantly.

    As Nick mentioned just above, there’s been a shift in mindset, caused partly by the proliferation of beta software, that’s at the root of this. I think to some degree, people *want* these frequent, incremental updates and patches, to reassure them that their software is being continually reviewed, repaired, improved. At some point, though, I hope people will realize that the spigot has turned into a firehose and that we should look for more judicious update cycles.

  18. Amen, brother! I think I update Adobe Reader as often as I use it. (Maybe more often… Wait… Is that possible?…) My latest attempt to update Adobe Reader was thwarted by the updater itself: Opened the app, launched the software update mechanism, was presented with a list of updates. When I went to install them it told me I needed to update my version of Reader. Wait… I thought that was what I was doing! I had to go download and install the latest version of Reader before I could update it with the built-in update system. Seriously. WTF?

    I’m a lab manager, so I do a lot of software updates, and honestly, the quality of the software updater influences whether or not I use a product. I tend to let apps that need constant, or irritating — or constant and irritating — updates languish. I just tend not to use them. I’ll look for other alternatives that don’t bug the crap out of me.
    So I hardly ever update Reader because I hardly ever use it. It’s just too damn annoying for daily use. Apple’s Preview works better than Reader for 90% of my needs. And I never have to update it.

    I think product updates, as neglected as they often are, are part of the user experience. If they don’t work right, it counts against the software itself, no matter how useful that software may be. At least it does in my book.

  19. I agree that this is a scouge that plagues civilized society. And, yes, Adobe is the king of the scourges now that RealPlayer has been reduced to a shell of its former self.

    I have Adobe Acrobaton and I get bombarded with update notifications. In my case, the problem is two-fold.

    First, the notifications themselves are annoying. I’m ready to get going on something, and I have to pause to read this notification, click no, then sometimes click no on another box that asks me the same question again.

    Second, sometimes I try to proceed with the update. After going through a lengthy wait, I’m told to enter information into a few boxes. I do so, but after another wait I’m told that my computer can’t be updated for some reason.

    Not that is really aggravating.

  20. I suspect it has to do with the widget itself (i.e. whether it offers auto-updating or just a link back to the homepage) or if you have ‘open “safe” files after downloading’ enabled in your preferences – from memory Apple disabled this by default as part of a recent security update. All I know is I am constantly updating the damned things…

  21. My biggest fear with software updates is it bloat’s the software. I’ve had two games and one desktop application that got upgraded and killed the performance on my old(er) machine. So I installed an old version and can’t do partitial upgrades.

    I’ve switched to having ten pieces of smaller software rather than one unified solution.

  22. Aagh Acrobat reader … but the updates from Mozilla for firefox is something that i like just the updates and not the entire browser all over again

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