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.