Avalance Caution sign

The constant software update tyranny

My immediate response to dialogs that excitedly pop up proclaiming that “New Software Update is Available!” is always “I don’t care.” —and it happens a lot more often than it should. Here is a recounting of two evenings that really got me thinking of how intrusive and annoying software updates are.

An acquaintance’s child once said as the family sat down to watch TV: “Can we please watch something other than the green bar go across the screen today?” He was of course referring to the frequent and forced software updates that roll out on the Xbox One.

I’m was relaxing on the couch and binge-watching a TV series on my Xbox One that I somehow never had gotten around to watch before. The episode was streamed from a PC on the local network. After the first episode finished, a splash screen popped up to proclaim that a new software update was available. I could choose between three options: “Start Update”, “Go Offline”, or “Shutdown”. I choose the second option, believing that I wouldn’t need to be connected to Xbox LIVE to watch something streamed from the local network. I was mistaken and had to agree to install the update.

From experience, I know these updates can take quite some time. Therefore I started a podcast on my phone to keep me entertained while the green progress bar was slowly crawling across the screen. After about 20 minutes, the update still hadn’t completed but the podcast had abruptly stopped playing. I pulled out my phone only to discover a notification proudly proclaiming that “Pocket Casts was updated”. I restarted the app and started up the podcast again. Some 15 minutes later, the Xbox was done with the update and I could get back to watching the next episode of the show.

The next evening, I got halfway into the second episode of the evening when the update splash screen reappeared. I sighed and started the update. I fetched my laptop, believing I’d have time to sort out some nasty traffic problems with one of my cross-junctions in Cities Skylines. Unfortunately, my laptop had other plans for the evening.

I first had to wade through the usual assault by update dialogs, consisting of everything from Adobe Flash and my file sync program to my graphics card and even keyboard driver! After starting the Steam game platform and attempting to start the game, I had to wait for Steam to first update the game before I was allowed to play. While the game was updating and showing a long list of other games that needed to be updated below it, Steam opened yet another window asking me to update and restart Steam itself. A few seconds later Windows chimed in and proclaimed that it had to restart Windows to install new updates.

“We can’t install some updates because other updates are in progress. Restarting your computer may help and we’ll keep trying to update.”

Well, you should have tried a lot harder before bothering me with this error notification, Windows Update!

The way that software updates are deployed today and the way the software industry is pushing their customers around is totally unacceptable. Sure, this was something we could all endure once or twice per month back in the early 2000s. On modern devices with a a handful of software installed, the pressure to reboot and update feels constant. Why hasn’t there been any innovation since Windows 95?

I don’t use my Windows PC every day. Whenever I do boot it up it feels like I’m entering a combat zone where I have to play whack-a-mole against an avalanche of dialogs prompting me to install software updates. I feel like I’m in a abusive relationship with my operating systems and software. This has to stop.

Software vendors want their customers to run the latest version of their software to stay safe and keep them inline with feature development and business whims. Yet, they completely disregard the priorities and wishes of their customers. No user wants to waste their time installing software updates.

While I’m typing this out there is a hovering “Update Available” prompt floating in the top right corner on my Mac prompting me to restart my Mac. I do for sure see more updates than most people because I have a lot of different devices. However, the time and attention each of these devices and the software on them demand from me for software update has just become a cacophony of distractions and black hole where so much time is sucked into and vanish.

I really hope that software vendors will stop and take the time to innovate on how they deploy updates. Their customer’s time and attention is valuable, and they need to start respecting it by making their updates more invisible and stay out of people’s way.

I’m of course assuming here that the software updater is smart enough to consider battery life and whether the user is on a metered Wi-Fi or mobile connection. I never want to see a update prompt when I have only have 15 % battery left and pay per megabyte! Information such as this is available in modern operating systems, yet no one seems to check such things before putting wasting your valuable time and resources by putting up another update prompt.

If you had a choice between two similar pieces of software: One that silently updates in the background without bothering you; or one that stops to ask you to confirm whether to download and then wants you to click through each step of the installation. Which one would you choose?

At the end here I’d like to mention a funny sketch about software updates and signing new license agreements by comedian Eddie Izzard. “A dialog comes up asking ‘Would you like to sign a new agreement with iTunes?’ I’ve signed many agreements with iTunes. I don’t know what they want from me anymore. Surely they know I agree with them‽” Besides making a good point of how meaningless software agreements are to people, he also makes some good and relatable points about the user experience of installing software updates in his gig.

3 thoughts on “The constant software update tyranny”

  1. inability to do silent autoupdates in background is, ofc, pain. But it has a reason: on some systems (hi Windows), you can’t write to a file (update a program) while it’s open for reading (while the program is running). On other systems (hi Linux), it’s indeed possible. Where it’s impossible, programs can use a trick: install new versions into unique folders like c:\Program files\Program\Version, and have some launcher.exe for pinning on the taskbar. But that’s trickery, ofc.

    1. I didn’t want to discuss the finer points of engineering and technicalities in the article, but you are of course right. My point still stands: Software vendors need to do the work to get this to work right. How they choose to implement it is beside the point.

  2. This is a wonderful rant and I’m fully on board.

    Part of the problem in Desktop operating systems is there is money to be made with automatic updates. Take “free” antivirus software as an example: updates may represent the only hope these products have of monetizing the mind-share they have cultivated with their freeloading customers, i.e., by occasionally providing upsell opportunities during the process.

    (It’s hard for me to imagine any meaningful percentage of the people paying for “Pro” free antivirus really understood the value-proposition that was put to them, and made a knowing decision to opt in to paying — that is a different rant however).

    Unfortunately I do not see an easy solution. Platforms like Apple and Android that try to monetize deployment monopoly do deliver value here.

    Unfortunately the cost in lost freedom to the end-user is probably greater than the benefit of any update-prompt-tyranny mitigations these “Stores” have yet to provide.

    We seem to need a software update messiah to somehow emerge and Deus Ex Machina this thing for us.

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