When Updates Go Astray

Part I – The Scene

Like me, you probably like it when your favorite app gets an update. Because it’s sort of great! Updates promise faster programs and more features. More often than not, they ask for not a penny in return.

You really can’t say no to that. It’s like a gift. A gift from corporate America!

Imagine my surprise, then, if you will, when I open up the iOS store not too long ago, to discover that my beloved Kindle iPhone app had been updated. Out of curiosity (and perhaps because it was right there), I started reading the log to find what goodies were in store for my favorite e-reading software. Perhaps a Summarize feature, to hold my hand through the second half of War and Peace? (P.S: if someone had told me there were two halves to that book, I would never have bothered). Or maybe a new font? I love fonts. Maybe they’ll call it New Bezos. That’d be really great.

And lo and behold, there she was, at the top of the list.
Removed the “Kindle Store” link from within the app

Well, that was when, dear reader, I realized that, like countless Americans, I had become an innocent victim of the crapdate.

 

Part II – Wherein Konrad Describes the Crapdate and its Adverse Effects

“A crapdate? What’s that Konrad?”

Well, first off, good question. So, it turns out a crapdate is exactly like an update – if the update occurred in oppositeland. Instead of adding features, it removes features. Occasionally ones you use on a regular basis. Instead of speeding up your software, it slows it down. Instead of making everything better, it accidentally introduces bugs that make things, well, crappy. More specifically, a crapdate is what happens when a company takes the software on your computer and makes it worse – or sometimes, unusable – without bothering to ask your permission.

At least it’s still free, amIright?

Rubbish. Nobody wants crapdates. Just leave us alone.

 

But they won’t leave us alone. And I’m here to tell you that crapdates are everywhere. They’re auto-updating your iPhone as we speak. Ditto for Windows. That $100 Touchpad you bought last week? The update is downloading as your read is. Hell, even your Chumby is probably magically updating as we speak.

You didn’t ask for any of these updates. But they’re here. And any one of them could be a crapdate.

 

Part III – In Which We Uncover the Genealogy of the Crapdate

It wasn’t always this way. Crapdates weren’t always the norm. We didn’t always face the perpetual risk of feature-depriving, performance-killing software fixed shoved down our throat over the invisible wireless Internet in our sleep. We used to have a choice.

Storytime. And this story begins, like many a true tragedy, with the legal profession.

It is a tale that arguably began in the late 90′s, during the Microsoft antitrust days. After getting by with a slap on the wrist from the feds, Microsoft took the Worst European Vacation ever when it was ordered to Brussels by the EU, where regulators decided to do their Americans brethren one better by actually punishing Microsoft. They deemed the inclusion of certain non-essential services – like, you know, a browser – to be not-so-good for Le Competition. Windows Media Player was also a no-go. In fact a lot had to si-go. Thankfully, the new version of Windows that came out of this process of Whack-a-Mole, Windows N, was thoroughly castrated of all these features.

And you know what? European consumers snapped it up in droves, European capitalism prospered, and everyone lived happily ever after.

Still there? Well that was a joke. Nobody bought Windows N, because it cost the same amount as the Real Windows, and a continent attuned to the scent of fine cheeses could smell a crapdate from kilometers away.

Remember: the first rule of crapdates is that nobody wants a crapdate.

 

Part IV – Revenge of the B-School Graduates

But it was too late. Lawyers – not to mention regulators, business consultants, and zealous software designers the world over – had gotten a taste of what it was like to be able to limit software capabilities for fun and profit, and they weren’t about to let What the People Want get in the way of playing God with the software installed on our computers.
This, as they say, was going to be big.

There was just one problem, as the Windows N debacle made clear. People were perfectly happy ignoring your goods and your services once they realized what you were up to.

You have to remember that, back in those days, updating the software on your computer was a much larger ordeal than it is today. For starters, more often than not, and update involved driving to the store to pick up the newest version. Literally. With your hands. Updates delivered online – Microsoft Encarta (the endearing precursor to Wikipedia) being one of the early pioneers – required prudent use of limited modem bandwidth, meaning there was only so much trouble an update could cause. For the most part, software engineers – and this really was a golden age when many of these decisions were still being made by engineers whose M.O. was, and continues to be, how can we make it better?-  focused updates on increasing the content in programs, while largely leaving their architecture intact.

In other words, this was the era of Napster, pre the DRM-filled, crapdated Napster of 2003. The era of copy-and-paste pre the crapdated, copy-and-paste free “Jesus phones” of 2007. It was technology before business and corporate America got to it.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, if you’re one of the poor chumps out there who happens to use a computer), the combination of the real world and rapid technological change was making short work of the Old Ways. Today, there are at least three seismic changes in the technology world that are paving the wave for the continued rise of feature-killing, profit-padding crapdate.

 

Part V – : Three Ways that Technology Gave Birth to the Crapdates

Let’s start with broadband. In contrast to those early updates, faster Internet connections relative to the size of software (which ballooned during the CD-ROM era, before moderating back down when programmers realized that nobody wanted to see full motion video of Mark Hamill in their computer games) meant that updates were no longer restricted to adding content; the entire program could be replaced, swapped, or crapified without prohibitive downloads times.

The gates were now open.

This change was compounded by a second, related evolution: the always on Internet. Of course, this came hand in hand with broadband, but today there are other avenues as well. When Amazon deleted copies of 1984 from its Kindle devices several years ago, claiming copyright claims, many complained that the entire shenanigan occurred entirely under their noses and entirely unbeknownst to them. More so than merely broadband, the growing omnipresence of wireless Internet through cell towers and Wi-Fi means that Internet is not just on at every hour, but everywhere. Thus, the decision of whether to “be online” (and thus readily available/vulnerable for some quick-fix updating) is gradually transitioning into the question of whether not you want to take active steps to be offline – a decision we’re increasingly making only several time a year, during takeoff and landing.

Finally, there is a third transformation underway, vitally necessary for enabling the crapdate. This one, in contrast to the altogether no-brainer technological changes I’ve described, is more evidently a product of technological fashion than Whig progress. And that is the culture of the auto-update, and its close relative, the one-button install. It’s true that for many uses and many cases, Apple’s progress in turning the cumbersome sequence of License Agreement-Next-Next-Install into a simple button press was a simplifying and seminal improvement in computing. That said, the culture of turning changes into the programs we use every day into a invisible, instantaneous, and never-ending hum of background updates carries ramifications that go beyond those 15 minutes of time we save each year. In fact, more so anything else, the invisi-updates ceded control of our software once and for all to app programmers, accountants, and Steve Jobs of the world.

Never was the statement “it’s their world, we’re just living in it” as fitting. Here we are, wringing our hands in worry about privacy, even as we declare enormous segments of our hard drives fair game for whatever corporations large and small decide should go in version 2.4.91. It’s remarkable, really.

 

Part VI – In Which we Learn What this is Really All About

But, hey, you know what? I’m not a security consultant. I’m not here to warn you about the million ways in which Julian Assange or Time Warner is going to post your honeymoon photos to Foursquare, or wherever.

No, I’m just here to tell you about something.

My scrollbar is gone.

My scrollbar is gone because, in the latest Chrome update that auto-installed on my computer (Google, it should be noted, is particularly distinguished in how fervently it strives to erase the line between that hunk of plastic you bought at Best Buy and the Overmind), some programmer somewhere forgot to turn on the feature that enables the scrollbar for websites you’ve turned into apps.

(This is a real thing – you can read all about it).

And this, my friend, is a bona fide crapdate, out in the wild. Straight from Mountain View.

What’s that, you say? This is a tech article, and I’ve almost forgotten to mention the Big A? A$$le? Steven “Moneybags” Jobs, and his orchard in Cupertino?

Oh, it’s coming.

 

Part VII – In Which iTunes Gets iTsAssHandedtoIt

Somebody needs to say it: Apple Inc. has by and far perfected the art of the crapdate. Hell, the lynchpin of their digital empire, iTunes, is the Mona Lisa of the crapdate. These days, you can tell how long someone’s been out of college by whether you hear them say something like “I remember when iTunes used to play music.”

Really, iTunes these days is the digital equivalent of something really, really awful that med school students drive in from all over the state to peer at while Dr. Jakozy pokes at it with tweezers. I’ve been using computers for two decades, and I don’t even know how to copy a song to my iPod. When I watch one of those IBM supercomputers beating some nine year old Russian kid at Sudoku, I’m secretly wondering this computer can run iTunes without randomly freezing for a week.

Seriously. iTunes is a piece of shit.

 

Part VIII – In Which the Author Goes Big Game Hunting

So, we’re back full circle, because now you probably recognize where we started. Apple changes the rules. Kindle app removes features. Everyone else follows suit.

And we know what happens in the tech industry when Apple does something.

In other words, this is only the start. Thanks to the changes in computing that I described, many of the most dismal lessons of the dismal science – stripping away features and reintroducing them as paid subscriptions to boost the bottom line; leveraging digital monopolies to punish competitors and manipulate consumers; using always-on broadband to gather perfect information about users in order to deliver the perfect ad – will become a mainstay of our computing experience. With the culture of auto-updates and instant installs, innocuous-looking programs are one crapdate away from becoming Trojan horses for later updates that will, effectively, allow them to do anything they want. And even nice programs will simply cease functioning the day before your research paper.

Because someone forgot to turn on the scrollbar.

Whatever, dude. We’ll fix it tomorrow.

Many out there will surely say that the benefits of magically updating software outweighs the risks. And you know what? Despite everything, they may be right. The benefits are incredible. Especially for the vulnerable demographic of old, blind people who really cannot update their software, because they have grandchildren to call.

In other words, NOT YOU.

For the rest of us, don’t crapdate that Kindle app away. Update software when there is a reason to. These days, your computer is only as personal as you make it. And when the time comes, don’t be afraid to let the world now when that harmless-looking update is really…

A crapdate.

Hey, it could happen to you.

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