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12/96 Analysis: Start

Dribbleware and Stealth Upgrades

Your next operating system may arrive in patchwork
bits and pieces, perhaps even without your involvement.

By Fred Langa, Editorial Director

NOT LONG AGO, we all dealt with the inconvenience of downloading new Windows 3.x drivers, patches and bug fixes. If you were really gung ho-as I was-you made frequent pilgrimages to hardware vendors' BBSes for the download du jour. The more advanced the peripheral (especially cutting-edge video or sound cards), the more frequent your visits. Eventually, in your quest for a stable, fast system, you'd end up installing patches on top of patches on top of patches.

It was one of the ugliest parts of Win3.x, something Win95 was supposed to fix.

A funny thing happened. Yes, Win95 did what it was supposed to do for peripherals. Its miniport technology brought many core driver functions into the OS, and shifted some of the driver-writing burden from hardware vendors to Microsoft. This was supposed to reduce the need for frequent driver patches and updates.

But the law of unexpected consequences kicked in, and Win95 itself has become patch-happy-a crazy-quilt OS with dozens of bug fixes, corrections, upgrades, add-ons and extensions.

Win95 was relatively stable and bug-free when it shipped, but it wasn't perfect. A few months later, Microsoft released Service Pack 1 (http://www.msn.com), a free download to address the worst of the bugs. The Service Pack incorporates nine patches for:

  • OLE32 bugs that can retain pieces of previously deleted files
  • Shell problems with file copying and NetWare browsing
  • Weaknesses that make Password List easy to crack
  • A bug that can cause floating-point errors when System Agent is running
  • Printer port support for enhanced communication parallel port bidirectional communication
  • A NWServer security problem that could allow someone on a NetWare network illicit access to your files
  • A Common Dialog bug with Windows 3.1 legacy printer drivers
  • Vserver and Vredir glitches in working with Samba UNIX

But the Service Pack didn't fix all the bugs or shortcomings in Win95. It even introduced a few bugs of its own, requiring a new cycle of bug fixes and updates (http://www.microsoft.com/windows/software/updates.htm). As of this writing, you can download 10 additional patches and updates:

  • A fix for a Password List Update bug introduced in Service Pack 1
  • Additional OLE32 fixes
  • A new version of Kernel32 to plug a memory leak that occurs when using the Winsock applications
  • A major update to the Exchange mail client (Windows Exchange is even renamed Windows Messaging)
  • A new Internet Mail Service to add POP3 e-mail support to Win95
  • A better version of the anemic Backup applet

A corrected version of MS Fax Cover Page to remedy instances where MS Fax wouldn't show all cover pages

  • A 32-bit DLC bug fix to correct problems (when the data link control protocol stack is used to access mainframes, for instance)
  • IrDA 2.0 Infrared Driver support

A fix for a relatively rare but serious problem that occurs when you use a large EIDE drive with multiple partitions on a system that supports LBA and extended INT13 functions

And there's more. At http://www.microsoft.com/kb/softlib/, you'll find hundreds of new printer, display, network, modem, audio, input device and storage drivers, and numerous other files, drivers and utilities.

And I haven't even mentioned the hundreds of files in the Microsoft Office fixes and updates area, the huge developers' download area, the games area (relevant here because some of the games update your video and sound drivers for DirectX support, for example), the incredibly popular Internet downloads area, and beta downloads of such sweeping shell and OS updates as Nashville/IE 4.0 and Detroit.


I'm sure you see the problem. It's great that Microsoft has assembled so much stuff in one place, and that it's free. But who has time to wade through all this? Even Microsoft is having trouble keeping up: The Service Pack is confusingly posted two ways on the site, with two front ends and two publication dates (12/31/95 and 2/13/96).

If you do manage to keep up, your copy of Win95 could become very different from your neighbor's. This can drive system administrators and front-line technicians nuts because it makes diagnosing problems and supporting users much more difficult. It's no better for those of us who maintain our own systems. When we need to reinstall the OS, we have to reinstall the core files and then all the upgrades in the correct order, rebuilding the whole patchwork OS from bottom to top.

The premise behind component-ized software is good: You can update a broken piece of an application or OS instead of reloading the whole thing. But it has gotten out of hand. I store all the patches and upgrades I've downloaded into a directory for easy access. It now contains just over 38MB of files. What a pain in the patch.

Several products try to help by noting the versions of all the software you're using and periodically dialing into a central database to see if newer versions are available. Some even auto-download and install the newer drivers. Nashville/IE4.0's active desktop (see http://www.winmag.com/flanga/ie4.htm) does something similar by giving you a system that can update itself. In a way, downloadable ActiveX controls are doing stealth upgrades today, although not yet with core OS components.

This auto-update approach may mesh with a long-rumored Microsoft plan to move its software to a subscription model: You buy software once, then pay an annual fee for updated patches. It'd be great for Microsoft. Think of the millions the company would save in the duplicating, packaging, printing and shipping of disks, CDs and manuals.

It sounds convenient for you, too, until you realize you may not need or want every software update or driver that comes along. For example, as hardware ages, you reach a point where you shouldn't install new driver versions. Or, you may have hardware that identifies itself imprecisely-like the infamous stripped-down versions of name-brand video cards some clone vendors use. These cards appear to be the same as the full retail versions, but can't use the same drivers. Or, you may have a dual-boot setup where you specifically want an older, non-upgraded version of the OS. In these and many other cases, installing the newest drivers can leave you with a broken system and no clue as to what's wrong-especially if the system underwent a stealth upgrade.

I suppose software agents and install programs can eventually be made smart enough to know when to upgrade and when not to, but I won't hold my breath.

Piecemeal releases of software, wide public betas of new programs, and the proliferation of downloadable bug fixes and patches are changing the way we buy, install and maintain software. Dribbleware is already the rule at Apple. The company will deliver Copland (the next major version of the Mac OS) as a series of upgrades and patches, released over a year or more. Will Win95 be next? Dribbleware isn't going away; it's taking over. Are you as alarmed as I am? Drop me a note at flanga@cmp.com. For a point-and-click version of this column, go to http://www.winmag.com/flanga/dribbleware.htm.

Fred Langa is Editorial Director of CMP's Personal Computing Group. Contact Fred via his home page at http://www.winmag.com/flanga/hotspots.htm, in the WINDOWS Magazine areas on America Online and CompuServe, or at flanga@cmp.com

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