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
- Printer port support for enhanced communication parallel port
- 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
- A fix for a Password List Update bug introduced in Service
- 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
- 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
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
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
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
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 email@example.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 firstname.lastname@example.org