Why Updates Are Important

Almost 30 years ago John, an acquaintance of mine, purchased a Macintosh SE computer and an ImageWriter II printer.  His need was simple: He wanted to type stuff and print it out.  That need has not changed, and his trusty Mac SE is still serving him well in that regard.

In the modern, Internet-connected world, your needs as a User of technology are constantly changing, though you probably don’t even realize it.  You might think to yourself, “my computer is the same as it was the day I bought it, and it was fine then; so why should I update or change anything?”  And you would be right–your computer hasn’t changed!  But the Internet has.  And if you are connected to the Internet, then your needs are changing whether you know it or not.

First, let’s talk about code.  Computer code is the language that describes and controls how computers work.  Code determines how this web page looks.  Code determines what happens when you click on something.  Code secures your online banking transactions.  We like to think of computers as “perfect,” but the reality is that computers can only do what they are told, and it’s computer code that tells computers what to do, and computer code is written by people.  And how many perfect people do you know?

Three principle factors drive updates to computer code.  The first is flaws.  A flaw in code could mean it doesn’t do what it was designed or specified to do.  That can mean any number of things–the code was designed for 10 different things and only 9 of them work (it wasn’t tested thoroughly).  Or maybe when the code runs for too long the computer runs out of memory.  Or maybe it crashes when it runs on February 29th.  It could be anything.  When a flaw in code is found, it has to be updated.  The second factor that drives updates to code is security.  Security can mean keeping your data safe as it is transmitted from computer to computer (this is called encryption).  But security also means protecting the computer on which the code is executed (or “run”).  If a malicious user (frequently, if inaccurately, referred to as a “hacker”) executes code in a manner the author of the code did not anticipate, it could result in the user gaining an unauthorized level of access to the computer on which the code is running and, likely, many/any other computers on the local network to which that computer is connected. These flaws, once discovered, are called “exploits,” and when they are found, code is updated. The third factor is features. People constantly want more and better things, and things produced by code are no exception.  Here’s what the SUNY Potsdam home page looked like in December of 1996, almost 20 years ago as this is written:

Compare that to what it looks like today and all the features it offers. It improved.  It evolved.  It got better.  It was updated!

“But that’s not on MY computer, Rom.  Why should I care if people have to update code on web servers and internet computers?” Well, you’re partly right.  Why should you care if your bank or Google or Amazon.com update their web sites? Frankly, you don’t have a choice. Sooner or later, you’ll be forced to care. Part of updating a web site might be requiring a minimum version of a web browser because previous versions are known to have exploits which could lead to or allow a breach of the web server.  Things are fine today, and then tomorrow when you go shopping on amazon.com, you get an error telling you you have to upgrade your browser. If you want to shop/bank/blog/whatever, you must have the software your bank/vendor/blog host/whatever requires you to have.  If you don’t believe me, find a copy of Firefox 1.0 and see if you can load any of the web sites you usually visit. (If you can even install it on your current operating system…it’s up to version 50 now.)

But it’s not just the Internet you need be concerned about.  The operating system (“OS”) that runs your computer or your phone or your tablet is also code! And developers are constantly making updates for the same reasons: features and security.  Again: because code is written by humans, it is inherently flawed and other humans are going to discover those flaws.  Once discovered, flaws must be fixed because it must be assumed that some person somewhere will take advantage of the flaw. And that fix results in, you guessed it, an update.

“But geez, Rom; updates are a hassle!  They always seem to pop up right when I have something important to do.  I don’t have time for this crap!” You are not alone.  In the last week or so, I have heard from three separate people complaining about their computer or devices functionality.  In each case, a reboot and/or software update resolved their problem.  Sitting through an unexpected software update might seem like a hassle, but they really are necessary and should be checked for and applied regularly in order to preserve the functionality and security/integrity of your device.  They will also SAVE you time in the long run, even if they are a hassle at the moment you encounter them.  If an update notification pops up and you don’t understand what it is or what it is for, ask!  Do some research.  Type it into Google and see what pops up.

Some general tips for end users:

  • Mind the source of the update.  Updates in your App Store are usually safe.  Windows Updates are usually safe.  A window that pops up out of nowhere while you are browsing the web should be scrutinized.
  • Inspect links! If you are asked to “click here,” hover your cursor over the “here” and read the link that pops up.  The part immediately after the “http://” is most important.  Something that says something like “updates.microsoft.com” is likely legitimate, but something that reads “microsoft.updates.thisisreal.co” probably isn’t.  It’s easy to be fooled because it says “microsoft” in it. (Or “apple” or “google” or “some word you trust”.)
  • When in doubt, ask someone who knows more about it.
  • It’s not just you: Adobe Flash and Java do, in fact, update with annoying frequency, and their “updaters” aren’t as automatic as they should be.
  • Simply downloading an update doesn’t mean you have installed it.  Read and follow instructions.  If you don’t understand them, ask someone who does what to do.
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