The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of Software Updates

Software updates are unlike anything else in this world. It’s not as if you buy a book and automatically get sent the second edition. The whole concept seems in direct opposition to the rest of the capitalistic world. This is especially true where free software updates provide new functionality. It’s not always plain sailing though, and any experienced software user will no doubt have stories of both joy and horror after various software updates. So what goes wrong? And how can companies negate these problems?

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The Good

Xbox 360 DashboardLet’s start on a positive note. There are software updates that go smoothly and provide some real benefit to the end user. A recent example is the Fall Dashboard Update to the Xbox 360. So what did it do right? Well it provided some real added benefit to the end user. Support for additional video files, re-organisation of the interface to make things easier to find, fixing some bugs and the availability of new downloadable content. More crucially than that though, it just worked. Now I’ve never had any problems with updating the Xbox 360, but I know others have. It seems as if this update went smoothly, with no mass reports of “brickings”.

If the rumours are true, it sounds as if the new iPhone firmware also falls into the “Good” camp.

The Bad

I should preface this by saying I really like the way Apple do things. Moving to OSX from Windows has made me more productive and happier. So it’s with a great deal of shame that I have to put OSX updates into the “Bad” camp. There are two main reasons for this.

Firstly, I’ve had no end of problems immediately after applying an update. The main problem has come in the form of a dropping wireless connection. I don’t know why, but Apple seems to change something to do with the Wi-Fi connectivity in every software update. And many of these changes seems to negatively affect the stability of my connection. I have also had problems with the stability of certain applications following an update, most notably Quicktime and iTunes.

Secondly, there’s a perceived, at least by me, lack of value in these updates. While I understand that security and stability (see above) updates are vitally important, I’d like to see some new end-user features thrown in to sweeten the deal. I’m also not a fan of the increasing need to restart my machine after every update. It’s a testament to OSX and the hardware that I can leave my laptop on for weeks on end, which makes the need to restart after a software update even more annoying.

The Ugly

Nokia N95So I’ve given a good example of software updates, and a bad example. but what could elevate a software update, or a series of software updates beyond the bad ones? What makes a software update really ugly? How about one that intentionally removes end-user features? In fact, let’s take that a step further. What if the update removed functionality? Not through a bug, but someone making a conscience decision to take something away from the end user that was once there.

I am, of course, talking about a recent update to the Nokia N95. Nokia, in their wisdom, decided to remove the “Tracking” feature from the satellite navigation software on the N95. The reason is clear. In order to get directions from the GPS software, you have to pay a subscription fee. The problem, for Nokia, was that not enough people were paying. This was largely down to the fact that the GPS software did the job without the user having to pay the fee. What many were doing, myself included, was to get within the general vicinity of your location (usually possible through road signs) and then use the tracking feature, which would continuously plot your location on the map. While it was doing this, it was very easy to scan the local area for your destination. Worked a treat and didn’t cost a penny.

With this feature removed, you are practically forced to pay the subscription in order to get any use from the GPS feature. Unless you download and install one of the free alternatives, something many users will not be able to do, or aware of. The problems don’t stop there. Nokia promised performance and stability improvements in the same update. These were nowhere to be seen. In fact, I’m convinced certain tasks now take longer (like trying to navigate somewhere without paying again…). And I’m not even going to touch on the fact that the Nokia “PC Suite” software, which is used to connect to, backup and update the phone, is incredibly buggy, slow, badly designed and Windows Only. No matter how much I like the N95 phone itself, and I do, the software update process has basically scared me off Nokias for life.

So it seems the keys to good software updates are:

  1. Provide some benefit to the end user, and make it perceptible
  2. Test thoroughly to ensure nothing breaks
  3. Don’t remove features
  4. Make the process as smooth as possible

Sounds easy, doesn’t it.

N95 photo by robad0b. MacBook by Andrew*.