Updates because of updates

Even if you only have a handful of apps on your smartphone, the updates developers push out every few days easily add up to hundreds of megabytes per month.

This letter to the editor comes from Paul Riekert, a music composer and audio specialist. Music lovers may recognise him from his industrial music project Battery 9.

On top of the issues Riekert highlights below, consider the millions of South Africans who have to download patches using mobile data that must be carefully rationed to make sure they don’t hit their caps too soon.

About a week ago as I type this, a WordPress core update broke my website. Completely.

Not the kind of “broken” where you can tweak a few lines of code and solve the problem. No. Complete annihilation.

I couldn’t even log in or load the admin page. I tried visiting the site as a user, and was greeted with a white screen and some text containing the line “critical failure”.


I tried a few tricks, but it quickly became a time-intensive exercise. I had to admit defeat.

I did have backups, so all was not lost. The website itself is not essential for doing business, so a few hours of downtime didn’t matter that much. But it is beside the point.

In an effort to very slightly improve the website, I ruined it. I was furious that an action deemed to be relatively benign could be so destructive. And, yet again, it reinforced my aversion to updates.

More often than not, if you politely decline to “update now”, applications endlessly harass you. I sometimes get the feeling that they would gleefully send a little crack squad to your house or workplace to rough you up a bit – if you keep refusing to update.

Let me throw in a disclaimer here: I am completely in favour of sensible or necessary updates. I love progress, improvement and innovation. But if you pretend to do that every week, it becomes tiresome.

An update is supposed to be a better version in some way, right? More secure, less buggy, easier to operate, or boasting new, exciting features — right?

Not necessarily. As far as I can tell, most updates are completely unnecessary. For the hell of it. Updates because of updates. For amusement. To grant the user access to six more crappy animated emoticons, or to introduce some form of obsolescence.

Whatever the reason, I think they (updates) are too many in number and they consume large quantities of resources. Which, in plain terminology, is known as a plague.

A popular taxi-hailing app proudly announces that they “…update the app as often as possible to make it faster and more reliable…” And then they update it about twice weekly.

Really? Twice a week they find ways to make it even faster and even more reliable. They claim to improve their app, twice a week, every week, indefinitely. By this strange logic, the app must have been a piece of utter crap when it was launched. Really slow and completely unreliable. Yet, in reality, it was fast and reliable and the service became an instant hit.

Back to my broken site.

I had no other alternative than to re-install WordPress from scratch and take it from there.

As soon as the installation was finished, with basically just an empty shell standing, what was the first alert that popped up? An urgent appeal to update to the latest version of WordPress! I felt like punching somebody in the face.

For many computer users who work in corporate environments, updates are of no or little consequence. (Except if there’s a meltdown, of course.) Updates are handled remotely by the IT team. They generally aim to keep it simple, so updates are potentially less painful or harmful.

The moment you add a few pieces of specialised hardware and finicky, resource-hungry applications, things change. Chances of a complete disaster increase exponentially.

I do music composition and specialist audio work for a living. I am completely dependent on a particular set of reliable digital tools to do my work. The OS versions, the applications and the firmware all have to be compatible.

I have to find compatible versions — often by trial and error — and then stick with the setup for as long as it does everything it’s supposed to. Tinkering with something small on one side can upset the delicate balance, causing great calamity elsewhere.

So far, I’ve had my share of frustrating post-update meltdowns. Without exception, those were the result of spur-of-the-moment updates. Normally, I would do thorough research before updating anything, but a few times, in a momentary lapse of reason, I just hit “YES” — and paid the price.

I remember doing an impulsive update of an audio interface’s firmware, simply because a pop-up was making a fuss about the new! improved! version. I am a fan of the brand, and trusted their “advice”.

Afterwards, every single piece of software on the machine avoided the audio interface like the plague. I couldn’t get any of the software to work with it.

I couldn’t just “roll back” the firmware version either; the interface didn’t allow it from the user’s side. It was most unwelcome. I was in the middle of a series of final mixes with tight deadlines. Even with a high level of redundancy, whichever Plan B I chose would have taken a bit of time — a luxury I didn’t have.

I ended up using an older audio interface that was still functional. The system needed a bit of tweaking here and there. I was up and running again, but the little adventure cost a few hours, which meant that everyone had to work harder and faster to catch up. All because I thought an update would be nice.

Updates should be accompanied by something like the package insert that is done for medication. Indications, contra-indications, side effects, stern warnings — that sort of thing. Updates could also be “scheduled” like medication.

On the one end of the scale, you have an update that can cause a little discomfort and on the other end — The Obliterator. The post-upgrade-meltdown-equivalent of a fistful of barbiturates.

One shouldn’t be unrealistic, I realise that. Software developers simply cannot test every update in every possible situation.

I would just like to know, in ballpark fashion, what the update would be tinkering with. What changes would take place, which files would be replaced, or which other applications could be affected.

And, pretty please, decision makers: stop the incessant, frivolous updates. Contrary to what you seem to believe, they don’t make you look good.

Paul Riekert is a music composer, audio specialist, and the man behind industrial music project Battery 9.

Now read: WhatsApp launches massive update to Groups

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Updates because of updates