Tuesday 16 December 2008

Happy Updating....

If you're a Windows usee with a few years' experience, you've encountered the rare, monumental and monolithic Service Packs that Micorosoft release on an intermittent basis (as one writer put it, "once every blue moon that falls on a Patch Tuesday"). They're almost always rollups of a large number of security patches, with more added besides. Rarely, with the notable (and very welcome at the time) exception of Windows XP Service Pack 2, is significant user-visible functionality added. Now that SP3 has been out for seven months or so, it's interesting to see how many individuals and businesses (especially SMEs) haven't updated to it yet. While I understand, from direct personal experience, the uncertainty of "do I trust this not to break anything major?" (that is, "anything I use and care about?"), I have always advised installing major updates (and all security updates) as quickly as practical. Given the fact that there will always be more gaping insecurities in Windows, closing all the barn doors that you can just seems the most prudent course of action.

I got to thinking about this a few minutes ago, while working merrily away on my iMac. Software Update, the Mac equivalent of Windows' Microsoft Update, popped up, notifying me that it had downloaded the update for Mac OS X 10.5.6, and did I want to install it now? I agreed, typed my password when requested (to accept that a potentially system-altering event was about to take place, and approve the action), and three minutes later, I was logged in and working again.

Why is this blogworthy? Let's go back and look at the comparison again. In effect, this was Service Pack 6 for Mac OS X 10.5. Bear in mind that 10.5.5 was released precisely three months before the latest update, and 10.5.0 was released on 26 October 2007, just under 14 months ago. "Switchers" from Windows to Mac quickly become accustomed to a more pro-active yet gentle and predictable update schedule than their Windows counterparts. The vast majority of Mac users whom I've spoken with share my experience of never having had an update visibly break a previously working system. This cannot be said for Redmond's consumers; witness the flurry of application and driver updates that directly follow Windows service packs. XP SP2, as necessary and useful as it was, broke more systems than I or several colleagues can remember any single service pack doing previously...by changing behavior that those programs had taken advantage of or worked around. Again, the typical Mac customer doesn't have that kind of experience. Things that work, just tend to stay working.

Contrast this with Linux systems, where almost every day seems to bring updates to one group of packages or another, and distributions vary wildly in the amount of attention paid to integrating the disparate packages, or at least ensuring that they don't step on each other. Some recent releases have greatly improved things, but that's another blog entry. Linux has historically assumed that there is reasonably competent management of an installed system, and offers resources sufficient for almost anyone to become so. Again, recent releases make this much easier.

Windows, on the other hand, essentially requires a knowledgeable, properly-equipped and -staffed support team to keep the system working with a minimum of trouble; the great marketing triumph of Microsoft has been to both convince consumers that "arcane" knowledge is unnecessary while simultaneously encouraging the "I'm too dumb to know anything about computers" mentality — from people who still pony up for the next hit on the crack pipe. Show me another consumer product that disrespects its paying customers to that degree without going belly-up faster than you can say "customer service". It's a regular software Stockholm syndrome.

The truth will set you free, an old saying tells us. Free Software proponents (contrast with open source software) like to talk about "free as in speech" and "free as in beer". Personally, after over ten years of Linux and twenty of Windows, I'm much more attracted by a different freedom: the freedom to use the computer as a tool to do interesting things and/or have interesting experiences, without having to worry overmuch about any runes and incantations needed to keep it that way.

1 comment:

Whistler said...

Thank you for your insight and your post.
Having gotten my start in the world of home computing back in 1979 with a TI-99/4A I've seen many computer/software companies' "philosophies" come and go. Commodore's "create it then leave it alone" philosophy made for a stable and predictable platform which served the vast number of consumers very well. These characteristics, unfortunately, allowed for little to no future-proofing due to the immutable operating system and hardware. Then, in the mid to late 1980's came the "attack of the clones" and the emergence of MS-DOS as the defacto standard for serious computing. After many iterations, Microsoft released MS-DOS version 6; arguably the best OS they ever created.
Windows was still a toy and nobody used it for anything critical. Then came Windows95, 98, 2000, XP, and now Vista. I don't list Windows ME for good reason.
The one thing all of Microsoft's operating systems had in common was a need for, at the very least, intermediate to advanced computer knowledge or knowing someone who had those skills. Being a computer hobbyist I was more than happy to build, maintain, and constantly fix these x86 based systems. It was fun.
When the various companies I worked for migrated away from dumb terminals to Windows based desktop PCs the love was losing its spark. As the "computer guy" I was constantly being hailed by co-workers to repair their "I don't know. It was working yesterday" problems. Pretty soon I didn't even want to touch my home computer because it was too much like my job.
This frustration prompted me to dabble in Linux and other 'nix systems so I had become familiar with the Unix modus operandi. This being: make it modular, customizable, and most of all, make it stable.
When Apple dropped their proprietary peripheral requirement and adopted a 'nix based OS (BSD) I took the plunge and never looked back.
Is Apple and OSX bulletproof, virusproof, and idiotproof? Of course not. No computer system is. However, compared to Windows, OSX seems to be so. Do I have occasional problems with OSX? Sure. But very rarely. And with my persuasion to be a tinkerer I've successfully performed tasks on my Mac that would've required a format and re-install on a Windows based PC. As a matter of fact, my experience with Microsoft taught me to format and re-install Windows twice a year whether it needed it or not. This was just to maintain what stability I had achieved.
One thing that really bugs my unconverted PC friends is when I tell them I reboot my Mac once a month whether it needs it or not.
Any problems I've had with an OSX update have always been minor (more nuisances than real problems) and these were usually fixed with the next update or point release.
I like to think I've learned a couple of things over the years. One of those is that Apple is good at one thing: making computers and software that you can use and want to use.
The other is that Microsoft is also good at one thing: marketing.
Microsoft with Windows is a lot like the government. While everything is broken and going down the tubes they tell you that everything is fine and try to make you feel better about it.
I'm not a Mac fan-boy or zealot. I just like to use what works with minimal effort.