Random scribblings on software, technology, language, and society.

Are silent updates evil?

This morning I started up my instant messenger to find a new contact in my “Buddy list”, I have been exchaning mails with for quite a while. I have no clue what suddenly caused said person to appear as a chat contact and it got me thinking.

Maybe it was the update of my cell phones operating system, which also caused my phone book to fill up with random names I have never seen before. I caught myself reading up on how GTalk is related to Google+ profiles, how google behaves if muliple Google accounts are linked, or a youtube account is connected, how they get integrated into your phonebook and possibly joined with other entries in there.

I get to decide between "Now" and "Later"

..Then I realized this is all futile. Software and services are constantly changing, and my current understanding of things will be obsolete in a few months.

Silent updates
Many products – most of Google’s – update to new versions transparently these days, without any user interaction or awareness [1]. Google Chrome doesn’t even display a version number any more, as that is a thing of the past. The thought behind this is noble: Don’t bug the user with technical details they don’t want to care about. As a side effect, when software vendors roll out changes gradually and inevitably, users don’t even get a chance to complain about them. They don’t perceive updates anymore. Instead of doing major UI revisions, the trend goes to small, barely noticable changes, like the ordering of buttons in GMail.
Am I the only one fearing a loss of control there?

Firstly, I could be dangerous.
What if some transparent system update causes a cell phone to handle contacts differently? People rely on features like tagging, hiding, grouping and connecting profiles of various accounts and services. Software which fiddles with sensitive data that is highly relevant to ones personal life should not be allowed to secretly morph into some new behaviour.
We live in a world, where a car vendor could update your car to turn left when you steer right.. luckily that would never happen. I’d expect the same sanity when updating my cellphone.

Secondly, its patronizing the user.
Software updates always make some assumptions on how that software is used. Silently forcing your users to update is somewhat disrespecting them, and eliminates a valuable feedback loop.
To me, the programs which are most fun to use don’t see their users as zombies – each pressing the same sequence of buttons – but those which can be used in various, creative ways. And this just hold for “big” applications like Photoshop: In a recent example, the feature of generating randomized playlists was removed from Google’s Android Music player and a “Shuffle all” button was added instead. The way I was using the software was thus rendered impossible, and I am still pissed that this change was forced on me, without the option to opt-out or roll-back.

Richard Stallman has warned us about this dangerous principle of “Software as a Service” [2], and I begin to see more aspects in which it is taking away the user’s freedom.
As release cycles keep getting shorter, the software landscape starts to appear as a dynamically changing organism. They way I see it, feature-changing updates should be an active and decided process. This gives the user a slight but fundamental bit of control instead of turning him into an incapable observer.



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