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ATPM 2.12
December 1996





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Shine On

by Chad Poland,

Keeping It Up To Code

With the proliferation of the Internet, users wanting to have the latest software have been playing a cyber-version of "Keeping up with the Jones'". We spend extraordinary amounts of time keeping our software updated following the promise of 'ease of use.'

When I first wandered into cyberspace, I was in awe of all software available for downloading. I couldn't believe how easy it was to get the latest and greatest. From shareware to system updates, they were all easily accessible. Little did I know that this boon would soon turn out to be a curse.

First, let's talk about system updates. When Apple released System 7.5.5 to the servers they were swamped. Even though the file was a measly 4 megs, it took the better part of a morning to access the server. Once I did, the download crawled along at a snail's pace. I eagerly awaited the 'Download Complete' command from my FTP program. When it finished, I had the proud distinction of being one of only a few thousand that owned the latest system version. Prestige would not last long. I would have to do this again.

This example is recent, but Apple has been doing this for a while. Some time ago they introduced pre-release (or beta) versions of software to the Internet. OpenDoc, Open Transport, CyberDog, and HotSauce all first appeared as beta versions that didn't always work. We were risking our hard drives and System Folders to catch a glimpse of the latest technologies. I was not immune to this desire. I spent a good chunk of a Saturday downloading OpenDoc, CyberDog and HotSauce. Since they were betas, new versions would be released at irregular intervals. I would have to do this again.

Other software companies were aware of this 'online update mania.' Soon, I was downloading updates and betas from Adobe, Aladdin, Connectix, Global Village and a multitude of other vendors. Typically, updates addressed a certain software problem, but usually not the problem I was having. Occasionally, the new software would cause problems I was not experiencing previously. I would have to do this again.

To be on the Internet is to use a web browser. Most people use Netscape Navigator and its plug-ins. When I downloaded Netscape Navigator version. 2.0, I couldn't wait to try the new features enabled by third-party plug-ins. I went to the Netscape Web site page where all the companies and individuals that had created plug-ins for Navigator were hot-linked. I spent an entire Saturday downloading each one, deciding if it was useful, installing and testing it. Of course, some were betas and they would have to be updated frequently. I would have to do this again.

The commercial companies are not alone. Smaller shareware authors have gotten into the act of offering online downloads. Excellent programs are releasing new versions on a weekly basis. I was getting shareware bug fixes that fixed the bugs in the bug fixes from the major software companies!

It soon dawned on me that I was going to be doing this the rest of my life. There was no way around it. If I wanted to stay current I would have to download the latest version of every single program I wanted up-to-date. It was at this moment when I realized just what had happened.

Two Sides to Every Coin

There are two ways to look at this. One philosophy reminds us that we're getting software updates free, and almost instantly. The other mentions that we're testing their programs for them, and we're spending our time downloading them (in some cases there's an additional monetary investment). Both ideas have validity.

People like to get cool stuff free. We like being able to go to a Web or ftp site, grab what we need and be up and running the same day. Thousands of people around the world can be running software by nightfall that was released earlier the same day. Anytime a new piece of software appears on a server, it is instantly linked to a multitude of news pages.

Problems we encounter can be solved more quickly and diagnosed more reliably thanks to the Internet. Most problems don't happen on one machine alone. There is always somebody out there who has had the same problems you are having. Many software companies' Web sites offer free news services through which many problems are diagnosed, solved and updates posted before the user realizes a problem existed.

User testing of beta software creates a more stable product. The software companies actually listen to user feedback via their 'bugs' e-mail address. We, the consumer public, can feel like we had an impact on the final product, that our needs were heard and met. This close tie between software developers and the public is a vital link. If we don't voice what we think about software, then the resulting software won't contain our input.

Companies go to great lengths to test their software. They do everything they can to verify that their product is ready to ship. This practice has worked for years, yet some developers have decided to release their beta versions to the Internet. While this gives the public a sneak peak at what they're working on, it can cause problems. Some betas are riddled with bugs. There are no manuals, tutorials, or anything that might help the user determine what the problem could be. If a beta trashes your System Folder, you are on your own to fix it. There are horror stories all over the Internet of people having problems with beta software.

Some people pay for download time. If you purchase a program and a feature does not work, should you have to pay to fix it? By downloading an update off the Internet while paying for online time, you are paying for it. Many people feel this is wrong. Users should not have to invest their time and their money to fix a problem that is the software vendor's responsibility.

The overnight popularity of downloading software updates and betas has created a new way of life for many computer users. We spend an inordinate amount of time trying to research, contribute, download and update. We monitor obscure servers in other parts of the world for brand new software. We spend hours visiting web pages trying to deduce all that's happening in the world of Macintosh. On the good side, we get the latest information available, and are able to diagnose odd problems. On the down side, we waste time fixing things that aren't broken.

It all comes down to a basic question. "What do I need from the Internet?" The answer varies from person to person. Quite often someone might ask me if they need the latest version of a particular piece of software or not. Invariably, I reply, "Do you need it? Is the version you have not working?" People tend to forget, there is no law that says you must have the latest and greatest software available. If you try to have the most recent version of all your software, you will probably go mad. If a program is working and doing what it is supposed to, why update it? Software companies come out with new versions on a regular basis. If your software is running correctly now and you're happy with its features, stick with it.

When will it all stop? It will stop when we download only major software revisions instead of each minor one. If we just stopped downloading the available alpha versions, it would be an improvement. Ten years ago, it was unthinkable for a developer to release an alpha version to the public. Now you see them all over the Internet.

We have given software companies the privilege of putting their pre-commercial release software on our machines. While it is an admirable goal to improve their software via user feedback, they should not abuse the public. When a beta software version is released to the Internet, it should be better developed. We are doing them a favor, and it should be looked on as such. Let's force these companies, programmers, and individuals to spend more time improving their products before they go out the door.

[apple graphic]"Keeping It Up To Code" is ©1996 Chad G. Poland

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