Updates? Why bother?

Remington Rand Computer, San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive: http://flic.kr/p/8DvPdY

“So, I should apply these updates?”  That question raises its head fairly often.  Whether they’re Windows updates, or Acrobat, or Java, it’s often the same question.  Or perhaps I sit down to work on a Windows computer, and I notice a whole string of icons in  the system tray begging for updates.  Should you apply them?


But why?

Great question.  The shortest answer is, “because most of them have something to do with security.”   With a broad definition of “security,” nearly all of them have something to do with security–either in the “this will help keep nefarious people from doing nefarious things with your computer” sense, or the “this fixes bugs in your program so you won’t suffer the consequences of a malfunction” sense.   Oftentimes, it’s both.

It’s Annoying!

Sometimes, yes.  Some programs like Acrobat and Java get updated so often that it seems like a kind of Spam that you get right on your desktop without even opening up your email.  But look at it this way: the companies that write software don’t send updates just to keep you clicking dronelike on “Yes” and “Next” and “I Accept” buttons.  They have to pay programmers good money to fix bugs in their software, and testers to find them.   So instead of thinking “Oh, no, another update!  Don’t these companies realize I have better things to do!”  think instead of how cadres of programmers are working away on a constant basis to keep you safe from bugs (at best) and hackers (at worst).

But sometimes it makes me reboot!

Yes, sometimes.  Speaking of which, when is the last time you rebooted your computer?  Probably not as often as you should, so an update requiring a reboot is a great reminder to do so.  Desktop computers are far more stable than they were back in the old Windows 98 / Mac OS 9 days–but they are still not designed to stay up always and forever.   “Uptime” is a real enemy of stability.  Take memory leaks for example.  Every time you start a program, it uses up some RAM.  When you  ask the program to do something else, it is supposed to clean and free up the parts of memory it’s no longer using (a process known colorfully as “garbage collection”).  Sometimes, though, the program misses a spot.  As it runs longer and longer, more and more spots get missed–filling your RAM with garbage over time.  This is a memory leak.  Fun fact: every Web browser has a memory leak problem.  So if those 28 tabs have been open in Firefox for two weeks, and your computer starts acting a little pokey, it shouldn’t be a surprise.

Full disclosure:  I would be a total hypocrite if I didn’t mention that I do this all the time.  So at least I’m qualified to report the results.

Sometimes updates change things!

Yes.  And that is annoying.  Why should I have to put up with all my buttons getting changed just to get an update that protects against the Frobozz virus?  A perfectly reasonable question–one I have been asking myself since the days of Windows 3.1.  The only answer I can figure is that interface designers have to eat, too.  I know that’s not very comforting.  Interior decorators don’t break into your house and rearrange your furniture just because you got a new security system installed.  But it’s also a fact of digital life, and hey, it’s better than having all your digital furniture stolen by some teenager in Latvia.

What’s this offer?

Are you a campus PC user?  You’ve probably seen a little baloon pop up out of your system tray (that’s the collection of tiny icons in the lower right corner of your screen) saying “You have 1 new offer.”  Clicking on it, you might have been relieved (or dismayed?) to find that it didn’t come from a Canadian pharma company or a Nigerian prince with money management issues.  Instead, you get a window from something called “Tivoli Endpoint Client Manager” with a message saying, “Computer restart requested.”  It’s an update!  William & Mary IT uses a client called “Bigfix” (its icon is a white lowercase “b” in a blue circle) to manage a lot of your computer’s updates, especially to the operating system.  Every once in a while, Bigfix needs to update some file that can’t be updated while the computer’s running.  Do it!  Remember, rebooting is a good thing.

But I use a Mac!  Macs don’t have security problems!

I know, right?  Let me also interest you in this beautiful seaside home in Arizona that Steve Jobs himself willed to my sainted Aunt Lenore….

Actually, I doubt I’ll hear that one as often now that most Mac users know about the Flashback trojan.  Do you know how to get the fix and the preventative for the Flashback trojan?  I’ll give you three guesses, the first two don’t count, and the last one lives under the Apple menu beneath a menu item called “Software Update”–assuming you’re running at least OS version 10.6.  You’re not still running 10.5, are you–?  Apple doesn’t support that anymore.  No more updates.  Beware.

Alright, my browser started acting up while I was writing this article, so I probably ought to reboot.  Good thing the Chrome browser will remember my 17  open tabs.

Note: The featured image for this post comes from the Flickr Commons courtesy of the Museum of Hartlepool: http://flic.kr/p/brSvCA

About John Drummond

John Drummond is the Academic Technology Manager at the College of William & Mary. Originally from Mathews County, VA, John graduated from James Madison University with a BA in English in 1996 and an MS in Technical and Scientific Communication in 2002, and is currently studying for an Ed.D. in Higher Education at the W&M School of Education. He has been with W&M since 2007. In addition to working in IT, John has taught occasionally at W&M and previously at Tidewater Community College, and in other roles has been an author, a musician, a Perl programmer, a UNIX systems engineer, and a network manager. He resides in Toano with his wife Andrea and daughter Rebekah.


  1. Jesse Windley says:

    Great reminders John … and an enjoyable read.