The curse of updates

One of the worst things about the ubiquity of the internet is the crutch of automatic updates.  Who cares if our code isn’t feature complete?  So what if there are bugs galore?  It works okay – let’s ship and just put out an update.

And thus we are now stuck in the bane of the update.

The worst offender is easily Adobe with Reader.  PDF – Portable Document Format.  Its name conjures up images of lightweight, portable and universal means of viewing a document.  Sadly since Reader 8 or so we have been cursed with updates every few weeks.  And the worst part is the Adobe Updater is an extremely belligerent piece of software, that INSISTS you update.  The worst part is that in providing ‘flexibility’, Adobe have allowed partial updates to plug-ins and the like, and so any minor change in any part of Reader requires a virtual reinstall of the software.

I still find the most galling aspect of it the fact that they have considered the use case.  Some average Joe gets sent a PDF, tries to open it, and then Adobe Reader suddenly realised “oh wait, you need to update”.  All right you say, let’s just get it out of the way, and you click next.  “Wait a minute, you want me to UPDATE this software while it’s  STILL RUNNING?” cries Reader.  And all of a sudden you have to completely break focus, allow it to close reader, and start again.  The worst is when you’re doing this from within a browser.  How on earth did this make it past user testing?

Tonight I wanted to play some Rock Band with my brother.  It’s been maybe a week since I booted my PS3, and at most 2 weeks since an update.  Before I can do *anything* online, “oh ho ho, what do you think you’re doing?  You need to update! You might be running a hacked firmware and we can’t allow you to do anything online.”  Seriously, how has this become acceptable?  The worst part of this is Sony’s download code for the PS3 is abysmally slow – it took half an hour to download and install the new updates.  In fact, it’s almost twice as fast to just download updates on my laptop, copy them to a memory card, and then go through the hullabaloo that is required to do a non-standard install.  And for what?  A few bug fixes and some unknown feature I’ll never use?  To top it all off, several of my games then required individual updates as well.

Although both of these are obnoxious, at least with Adobe you can reject and disable updates easily, and with the PS3 you are still allowed to play locally.  The truly obnoxious updater is Apple’s “Software Update”.  Hey, here’s an idea – let’s push products people don’t want as part of the update process.  Better yet, let’s set this up so it’s extremely difficult to disable it.  Apple did a fantastic job of obfuscating the disablement of updates, which offered my Windows PC little to no benefit (I leave them enabled for my Macs).  Searching through the registry, start up menu and MSConfig turned up nothing.  Googling the problem turned up this gem – it’s a scheduled action instead.  You need to go to your scheduled tasks (of which I have no others) and delete it from there.

So what rules for design can we take away from this horrendous user experience?

1 – Allow updates to be disabled easily.  Not everyone wants the latest and greatest (indeed, many times it is necessary to stick with an old version as I discovered when Apple updated Quicktime and broke my video camera’s ability to view its own files)

2 – Reduce the schedule of updates.  Updates are important, but make sure they’re *really* important before you foist them upon users.  It’s tempting to be constantly adding new features and pushing them out, but unless you have a seamless update procedure it becomes a major source of user frustration… which leads me to my final point:

3 – Make it seamless and quiet.  Nobody likes to be prompted to update, let alone select updates from a large list and then interrupt everything they’re doing to install something they don’t need.  Find a way to do it quietly and without hassle.  How can Microsoft get this right to a reasonably acceptable level but not Apple?  I dislike Vista with a passion and love OS X, but yet I find myself almost as routinely irritated by Apple because of their update procedure.

Personally, I can’t wait till we’re all back on thin clients and have 100% seamless updates.  Hooray for web 2.0.