Tom Petrocelli's take on technology. Tom is the author of the book "Data Protection and Information Lifecycle Management" and a natural technology curmudgeon. This blog represents only my own views and not those of my employer, Enterprise Strategy Group. Frankly, mine are more amusing.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Pain of Upgrades

We all like up-to-date software. Who can say "no" to new features or more stable code. The past few weeks have seen major new versions of the popular open source browser Firefox, and Konfabulator, now called Yahoo! Widgets. The other great Mozilla application, Thunderbird (which is to e-mail what firefox is to web browsing) is expected within weeks. What great holiday presents. Or, they would be if the actual updates weren't so difficult. This is the tale of three such upgrades.

Windows XP SP2
I will be the first to admit that I made things difficult on myself. I chose to finally upgrade to Windows XP SP2 and install every update that was pending. It was about time. The new features don't matter much - I don't need yet another firewall - but the patches and security features were due.

This one, I must say went relatively smooth. Okay, I had to reboot like a half dozen times. You would think that by now someone would have figured out how to stage these updates so that we don't have to restart after each one. In the grand scheme of things this is an annoyance.

What is not an annoyance is when applications stop working. My favorite graphics program no longer displayed anything loaded into it. The software thought that pictures were there but refused to display them. After another round of updates, it started working again. This leads me to believe that it was not the graphics applications. Instead, it was probably one of the updates. Updates are supposed to fix things not break them.

The second problem occured when I went to run Windows Media Player. It acted like this was the first time I had installed it. It made me run through the whole "first run" process. How stupid. This is an UPGRADE not a new installation. There is no good reason to make us go through the start up process again and again.

Firefox 1.5
The actual installation was a breeze (notice a pattern). It updated my installation in a snap. That's when the fun began. It turns out that a lot of extensions and themes that I had installed no longer worked and there were no updates to them available. This is the Achilles heal of open source. You can't expect that the free extras will work when things change in the main application. Given that Firefox 1.5 has been in Beta for months, you have to wonder why this is so. I have to assume it is because the folks that write these extensions have real lives and simply couldn't spend time on it. That doesn't explain why the AskJeeves toolbar wasn't ready. They're supposed to be a real company, right?

The oddest thing about this upgrade were the inconsistancies between my laptop installation and the desktop one. I had fewer problems on the laptop even though the software is mostly the same and the hardware pretty close. Go figure. A good example is the Greasemonkey script engine. It installed well on both machines but did not work on my desktop. On both it wiped out my existing scripts (a real pain in the neck) but on my desktop machine it wouldn't allow me to install and new scripts (a bigger pain in the neck). I was left scriptless and perhaps witless. That was not the case on my laptop where it worked fine. Hmmmm. As Alice would have said "Curiouser and curiouser". I finally found a resolution on a forum somewhere. Apparently, in some cases a file directory doesn't get created. Without this file (which can be empty), Greasemonkey can't install new scripts.

Again, I know that this is free and all but if things like this continue to happen, open source will eventually die. It will be too expensive and hard to maintain. Microsoft will win and it will be the end for the open source movement. Not that I'm a prophet of doom or anything

Now if they could only fix the memory leak that causes my browser to continue to east memory until it's all gone, I would be happier.

The Software Formerly Known as Konfabulator
First question: Why change the name? I know that Yahoo is all about brand but why not Yahoo! Konfabulator? That at least sounds cool. Yahoo! Widgets sounds so pedestrian. Are they trying to copyright the word "widget"? That can't be since "widget" has been used in this context since the dawn of computing.

By any measure, the upgrade is a mess. The fact that they released three versions of the program in less then a week is an indicator of some pretty poor testing. One look at the forums shows installation errors a-plenty, not to mention broken widgets all over the place. Lots of other problems have been reported including runaway memory usage and endlessly spawning process. Overall the mood is ugly.

My problems were with the installer. Yahoo! has you download a small bit of code which then installs the rest over the Internet. In my case, the installer just plain crashed. In the end, I scrounged around for a full install that worked fine. After that, I had no problems but others have not been as lucky.

Unlike the Mozilla people, Yahoo! has few excuses for this. They have the resources to properly test this code better. It is supposed to be a major step in their overall strategy to tie us to Yahoo services. It's a nice integration too. The Notes widget (which looks like a stick notepad) is integrated with Yahoo! Notepad and the Day Planner with Yahoo! Calender. It sure is a value-add to these services, though I'm not sure how Yahoo! will make money from it. There's no advertising on any of these widgets. Whatever the strategy, it won't work if the software is a bust. It's hard to make money by pissing off your customers.

Overall, consumer software upgrades are too sloppy. This type of behavior will drive people to hosted applications.Maybe that's the strategy. If the software on your PC is so hard to maintain, everyone will use the hosted applications instead. Then, companies will be able to shove advertising in front of our eyeballs... or wherever else they might want to shove it.

Okay. Now I get it...

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