Editorial

From my cold dead hands: Living without updates

Let’s face it, updates are now an integral part of our daily lives. There’s almost no way to get through a given week without being faced with some kind of update notification. A new version of an app is available, security fixes have been released, your favorite software now has less bugs and more functionalities... what was once the subject of scrutiny by many in the techy world is now part of the routine for anyone owning anything boasting a screen.

In an age where all our devices are connected, every piece of software related in part or in full to another, online services and cloud storage considered to be the norm, being up-to-date sounds more important than ever. Refusing updates on certain devices seems equivalent to refusing everything the 21st century has to offer. Gone are the days when the internet was something we would turn on and off on a single computer, when networks only existed in corporate environments. Today, even our watches desperately need to access the World Wide Web to find out what time it is. In short, the smarter our devices get, the dumber they really become by being partly or entirely dependent on an external data source. Nothing seems to escape this tendency: phones, TVs, cars, game consoles, cameras, even firearms. All these devices are setup to allow external updates which leaves you with a simple choice: stay connected, up-to-date and exposed to various kinds of issues, or be offline, feel outdated and look like a caveman at the next CES.

We’ve all read articles about security risks, exploits and the multitude of problems related to our online life. The conclusion is always more or less the same: the world is changing, we have to find the right balance between privacy, security and services. Unfortunately, living online nowadays seems synonymous with accepting anything your service providers want to push in your direction. So, instead of focusing on the usual security aspect of this topic, let’s take a step back and ask one simple question: why. Why do we need all these updates, all the time and everywhere?

Consider this: it takes about half an hour to install Windows 7 SP1 on a brand new PC. Plug in your USB key, start an episode of Family Guy and by the end of it, you've got a complex OS capable of doing almost anything you throw at it, the fruit of the work of thousands of people working together for decades. But wait: before using it, you’re now strongly encouraged to spend several hours downloading and installing Windows updates, geting all the latest drivers and firmware files for your hardware, finding the latest version of everything you use, wondering why X stopped working like it used to... I understand the need for security in general, I really do, but less and less experienced users seem to ask the simple question: do I need this?

Let’s be honest, none of the bugs that have been fixed in Windows 7 since 2011 (the year SP1 was released) will make any difference for a typical user. Companies tend to use sophisticated hardware firewalls that prevent the vast majority of exploits from even reaching a computer or its anti-virus in the first place. As for home users, they mostly get their phones, PCs and Macs compromised as a result of social engineering tactics.

Encouraging people to install security updates in general is obviously a good practice, but this all ends when the lack of updates gets equated to an expiration date, as demonstrated a year ago by the uproar following the End of Life announcement of Windows XP. A "best before" stamp is not meant to suggest a product should be thrown away immediately past a certain point. In the case of Windows, updates have always been strictly categorized and pushed in a way designed not to disturb end-users. If you help someone with Windows 95, Vista, 8.1, or any other version of Redmond’s OS, you know what to expect, how it behaves, what it does and what it doesn’t. Unfortunately, this way of thinking ended with the release of Windows 10 this year, due to its continuous updates design.

We’ve all experienced it before: more and more software vendors use the update excuse to push all sorts of things, from patches that advertise new versions of a program to borderline spyware that recoup the cost of less successful products with new pseudo-functionalities designed to increase the company’s bottom line, not its users enjoyment... not to suggest Microsoft plans on doing anything like that but it’s interesting to think that Windows 10 in 2018 could be pretty different from the Windows 10 we know now, for the better and for the worse.

Despite all of this, it seems that nothing excites us more than the sight of "An update is now available" popup. We all jump head first in the update cycle, waiting for our next fix while barely appreciating what we already have in our hands. As a software developer, I see people jumping all over the place for Visual Studio 2015, despite the fact that Visual Studio 2013 had no less than 5 official important updates since its release, constantly adding exciting new features and hundreds of pages of documentation that only a selected few seem interested to read and digest. There’s probably enough content in the current version of this software suite to keep any developer occupied for the next 5 years without the need of a single new feature or bug fix. And yet, some users are already wondering when the next update will be released, less than a month after RTM.

We have to start thinking about all of this differently. We need to keep in mind that major updates often imply the need to re-learn what we already knew about a program. In a game like Final Fantasy XIV, updates can be part of the fun as you learn new abilities to go into battle, gather new collectibles in the forest... In a professional tool like Microsoft Office, it may mean re-understanding how to format a paragraph or send a picture to a colleague. No matter how you sugar coat it with "it’s now much better" arguments, the many people who use their computer like a carpenter uses a hammer won’t be happy with whatever disturbs the way they work, and rightly so.

We all enjoy getting new shiny toys and Windows 10 is a great example of what can be achieved in this area: it’s sleek, very promising and fun to use. Yet, we also need to recognize that some of our devices just need to be as reliable and boring as possible. I do not want nor need constant updates for my microwave. I need it to function exactly the way I expect it to, all day long, for as many years as possible. Last month’s story about a Commodore Amiga 2000 still being in use in an entire school district shows how the techno-press tends to react to older technology. Many commentators lamented that such a thing still existed in today’s world, yet, none of them probably ever wondered what chipset powered their alarm system at home. Most of the HVAC controllers conceived today still use very old chips for the simple reason that they work the way they’re supposed to. Software updates won’t increase the output of your furnace. Did your air conditioning unit come equipped with an advanced configuration software and a color screen allowing real time monitoring? No? Because the one in use by this school district did, 30 years ago, and you can bet it has not required any software update for a long time.

Now, you may be tempted to think this kind of reasoning only applies to corporate environments, that the beautiful updates you receive weekly are somehow required to keep on consuming all the digital content you love so much. So as a conclusion, I invite you to consider the case of yours truly: like many technophiles, I want the TVs in my house to have access to as much "stuff" as possible. And I’m not only talking about movies or music here: security cameras, home automation to dim the lights and roll down the shades, ... for that purpose, and being the geek that I am, I installed several computers in a dedicated room. Each one of them is configured with various equipment such as IR receivers/blasters, HDMI transmitters, video acquisition cards, and even serial ports to control the sound amplifiers (yes, you read correctly, RS-232. That protocol is even older than the Amiga brand).

This environment has been in place for many years now, I continually enjoy tweaking things here and there but one thing is certain: I absolutely have no reason to "upgrade" any of my systems. The main servers are running Windows Server 2008 and have been customized heavily in the course of their lives. Some of the software I use have not and will probably never be updated for anything past Windows 7. And even if they did, why update? All the screens connected to this system work beautifully, all my DVD and Blu-ray discs are stored as-is and play as intended. Satellite TV signal is distributed everywhere in full HD thanks to an old version of DVBLink Server and I can even access all the latest digital content Crunchyroll and Netflix have to offer by using a single Roku box plugged in the central system.

The cornerstone of all this: Windows Media Center, a software considered out-of-fashion by most techies but still without equivalent for that sort of use (media variety + add-ons + customizations + themer). Thanks to a program that has not received any meaningful update from Microsoft in the past 6 years, I can control my house, listen to my music, watch all the movies I bought on disc and online, keep an eye on the kids and much, much more. The interface is fluid and faster than most of the set-top boxes sold in stores today and all of it can be accessed on any TV (with a Harmony remote) or Windows tablet stuck on the wall. Music tracks are lossless, movies can be played in 1080p/24, 3D, with their original DTS HD track... you get the point.

This whole setup became viable thanks to hardware and software that’s already been declared obsolete or dead in several cases. Once you get the perfect picture and frame rate you’re looking for, any update becomes an interference, a nuisance, not a benefit. Security issues? There are none as these systems don’t need to be directly connected to the outside world. The version of some of the programs I use like My Movies, MPC-HC and EventGhost are already several years old and won’t be updated on my PCs in the foreseeable future. You would need to pry those machines from my cold dead hands before installing new ones in my server rack. And again, ask yourself: why would you?

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