The Lazy River of Software Updates

You Can’t Stop the Beat

Any tech geek or tech industry member has undoubtedly had the experience of a friend or family member complaining that software updates usually contain changes to UI (user interface), process, and any host of other background changes the user doesn’t understand. Some can find that to be a little unnerving, and the complainer’s response is invariably: skip the updates.

When this crops up in a support situations, users’ complex issues can be a tangled web of differently-updated apps or platforms.

A couple of things are true in the tech world right now:

  • Things change fast! Something that was impractical, expensive, or impossible in hardware or software is likely to be easy-peasy in the next year or two. Hardware innovation makes previously difficult software problems easy, and we can manufacture the hardware pretty darn fast. Because software in particular is basically math on a hard drive, not a tangible product, the innovation to market process can happen at breakneck pace.
  • Transparency is tantamount. More and more, software developers are building software that makes tasks and information plain to the user, with the underlying technological processes hidden. Think of apps-only tablet or smartphone UI, you never even see the file system, much less any of the system processes at work. Giant media libraries are packaged into back-end archives that organize, manage, and often repair themselves. It’s becoming almost ethical paradigm that a user should just be able to see, touch, and choose outcomes…not understand how to use software tools.
  • Specialization and Expertise are flattening. As powerful software tools automate ever-expanding functions, the need to understand the deep complexities of how IT actually operates is moving to a smaller and smaller grouping of expert engineers and more grab-and-go functionality is being passed to users. People can be uber-experts in the layers of technological know-how if they so desire…but most people these days should be able to use and manipulate IT tools the same way one might use a hammer and saw.

This state of affairs is core to the way in which software is updated these days. A small band of engineers designs and improves things as fast as they can, then passes on the changes as effortlessly as possible to the massive user base. New features are integrated in and then automatically updated so, ideally, the user always has the best possible tools at their fingertips.

It can be a little disorienting at times, with maybe some unexpected twists and turns along the way…but a little bit of “go with the flow” attitude goes a long way.

The Lazy River of Updates

Imagine floating effortlessly down a lazy river at your favorite resort or amusement park. The landscape is beautifully manicured, crafted into an idyllic paradise for you to enjoy as you go. You can go as fast or slow as you want; you can put your feet down and walk slow or fast, you can sit in your tube and float, you can kick your feet and cruise. But the landscape will remain picturesque. You’ll probably never see the concrete and steel under those faux rocks and bushes. You’ll absolutely never see the pumps and filters that create the illusion of a crystal clear river with a gentle current. Maybe there will be a little drop here and there, or a tight curve, or a cute little waterfall will pour on your head and wake you up, “Surprise!” But you can pretty much just go with the flow and enjoy the journey.

This is the intended experience for the vast majority of the user base of technology. “Here is this thing we’ve made for you, you sit back and enjoy it and we’ll fabricate the fake waterfalls and clean out the filters every week or so.”

The Rapids of Development

Sometimes users are not satisfied with the lazy river…they want some water sports. This can be anywhere on the spectrum from avid users who are constantly and intentionally juggling many different technologies, to power users like people with a linux system who are not only curating a complex array of technologies, but are required to actively perform maintentence on those tools to keep them operating optimally, to top tier engineers who eat and breathe ones and zeros and silicon. You can absolutely shun the passive world of automatic updates to transparent technologies, but you are dipping your feet into much rougher waters.

Ever watch olympic kayak slalom? It’s pretty exhausting to watch, athletes must paddle their way through choppy waters, around bariers and through and around objectives. It’s fast, extremely challenging, and really requires an expert touch. It’s still a manufactured environment, but there’s nothing picturesque about it…the boundaries and constructs are all about function…and you’re going to see the inner workings of those constructs up close and personal.

This is what it’s like breaking out of automatic update land; you’re not a passive user anymore, but you’re going to have to do some work. You’re going to have to learn and remember how the waters of different technologies move around the big plastic blocks of different platforms. You’re going to have to put a paddle in the water and leverage some muscle to change speed or direction. Objectives are going to require real effort.

It’s understandable to have some frustration about the manufactured environment of using IT these days. But it’s manufactured toward the goal of allowing you to live your life on an gentle inter tube, not a thrashing kayak. You are free at any time to ditch the tube…to stop being passive…but the waters are going to get choppy, have your paddle ready. You’re going to have to stay educated, constantly train yourself in new techniques and keep track of how of how many different systems, processes, and platforms work together.

The rapids can be super fun, there’s a tremendous sense of accomplishment and wonder that can come from slaloming through the choppy waters of technology. But it’s hard work. Keep in mind that the lazy river designers spent a lot of time and energy making that palm tree look just right, getting the pressure perfect on that waterfall, and cleaning out the filter on your behalf. It’s all in the service of you having one less thing to worry about in this hectic life.

Sometimes it’s ok to grab a comfy inter tube and just chill.

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Lazy River image by Flickr user Brian Shamblen — CC BY 2.0

Kayak Slalom image by Flickr user David Merrett — CC BY 2.0

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