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Fred Langa
Fred Langa

Dribbleware, Take 2
Many of you have been dribbled on with piecemeal software updates-and most of you don't like it one bit! Here's help!

Wow, what a hot button! December's column, "Dribbleware and Stealth Upgrades" (http://www.winmag.com/flanga/dribbleware.htm), generated a flood of mail. It's still pouring in.

"Dribbleware" refers to the increasingly common practice of releasing piecemeal upgrades and patches for Windows 95 and related applications. Instead of getting a fresh new version of your OS or application, you get a sporadic trickle of updated drivers, DLLs and add-ons. The core idea is fine-it's great to have the latest version of everything-but it's gotten out of hand. My collection of downloaded patches and updates has grown to more than 38MB. Some readers tell me their patch collections exceed the size of the original OS.

Who has time to wade through all that? Who wants to have to rebuild an OS patch by patch when it's time to reinstall? And who wants to try to support this stuff when the Win95 on one system can be very different from the one on the system at the next desk?

In some cases, patches, revisions, upgrades and bug fixes can auto-install themselves. That's the "stealth upgrade" part. You may not even know your system's been updated until something breaks inexplicably.

Most of the mail echoed this note from reader Michael O'Donnell:

"I find it difficult just maintaining software on my desktop and notebook computers. I recently had trouble getting some new software to recognize my new PC Card modem. Tech support told me to download a file from its Web site. When I tried to install the patch, its install program told me the patch was older than my software, and recommended not installing it!

"I also have a patch/update file on my system that has grown to 22MB, and I created it in July! I would hate to be a system administrator and have to keep track of an entire network."

Mitch Jerome's letter represents a vocal minority:

"People clamor for bug fixes and feature enhancements. When vendors try to deliver them as soon as possible in the only form possible (patches or interim updates), people complain of dribbleware.

"You can't have your cake and eat it, too. Either wait until all the patches are wrapped up into the next scheduled release, or get the patches and say 'Thank you for fixing the bugs so fast.'

Well said. But the ability to dribble out updates takes the pressure off vendors to finish a new version. That "next scheduled release" can drift into the indefinite future. Then we have to choose between dribbleware and bugs. To me, that's an unsatisfactory choice.

Reader Mark H. Rackin thinks dribbleware also takes the pressure off software developers in another critical area:

"Dribbleware and stealth upgrades are but a symptom of a much bigger problem in the PC software industry: quality. First, the cost of producing the software is lower (no need to spend money on proper prerelease testing because your customers will do it for free). Second, vendors can make buckets of money by forcing customers to shell out major bucks every six to 12 months for a 'version upgrade' that mostly fixes things from the old version that didn't quite work as advertised. At the same time, they introduce a slew of new features as an inducement to upgrade, knowing full well many of them will be buggy, forcing a whole new cycle and more cash flow in a few months."

Go ahead, upgrade my software

Other readers agreed on dribbleware, but not on stealth upgrades. Tony Flecklin said:

"I can attest to the frustration of repetitive downloading of new and not-always-better drivers.

"I would, however, subscribe to automatic updates for multiple systems with common configurations (such as those a system administrator would control) and for personal systems where the automatic installation preserved the initial state until the user confirmed the updates as acceptable. With the latter restriction, the responsibility for accepting changes remains where it belongs-with the user."

That's an interesting twist. Some of the commercial stealth-upgrade services ("Oil Change" is one) try to let you backpedal out of an upgrade that goes awry. (If uninstalls worked properly all the time, this might be a fine approach.) But I don't know of any program that holds an auto-update in abeyance until the user can see what's going to change, why it's going to change and what's likely to be affected. Coupled with a bulletproof uninstall, this would be a great idea. Any interested software developers?

Reader Charlie Hahn looked to the past to find a similar solution, albeit at the OS level:

"Fifteen years on the 'systems' side of IBM System 38 and the AS/400 convince me only a regulated mechanism built into the OS can avoid confusion. The patches have to tell the OS when they're downloaded and when they're applied, and the user must have access to a table that indicates what's actually installed and what's on the local disk waiting to be installed. The download program needs to compare the local table with the table of 'available' patches to ensure patches already installed aren't downloaded. On the AS/400 you can boot from 'A or B side' ('permanent' code or the 'new' code), so you can always go back to a proven, pre-update OS version if your most recent updates have zapped you. But that's an industrial-strength schema, and you must pay costs in storage, time and expertise."

Several readers chided me for not pointing out some other solutions in the original column. Marty Ray Anderson wrote:

"What we need is more positive leadership and ideas for moving ahead. It's easy to complain about what's wrong in our world, but it's impossible to improve without ideas for improvement."

Well, let me make amends. Here's my proposal: When a collection of patches and upgrades grows too big for the average user to download in an hour at normal modem speeds (depending on your assumptions, anywhere from 5MB to 12MB), it's time to issue a new CD with a point upgrade. To help control costs, vendors could offer the upgrade CD only to registered users. This would be a strong incentive to register. We users would get the updates we need, and vendors would get a huge mailing list they can use directly and rent for profit.

Vendors of low-cost apps whose profit margins are too small to allow free CD updates could charge a nominal fee to cover manufacturing and mailing costs. In volume, this could be as little as $3.

Unfortunately, the industry seems to be moving in another direction. One approach is the "network computer" (see this month's Dialog Box), a lightweight client that connects to a powerful network server. The server-or rather, the people who control the server-decide which updates you need and when they'll be installed. Microsoft's planned "Zero Administration" initiative (see http://www.microsoft.com/corpinfo/press/1996/Oct96/ZAWinpr.htm) is supposed to do the same thing for certain classes of PCs.

You'll find more responses on our Letters page, and all the letters on dribbleware I've received electronically at http://www.winmag.com/flanga/dribbleware/letters.htm. We've also assembled some great, free-for-the-download tools to help manage your patch collection (http://www.winmag.com/flanga/dribbleware/tools.htm). The "Do-It-Yourself Windows 97" feature in this issue pulls together information on keeping Windows working the way it should. You can take charge; don't be a dribbleware victim!

Fred Langa is Vice President and 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 the e-mail addresses here.

Windows Magazine, February 1997, page 19.

[ Go to February 1997 Table of Contents ]