Do you need to upgrade or update your software right away? (Part 1)

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Do you need to upgrade or update your software right away? (Part 1)

You can be forgiven for thinking that there seems to be at least one software update waiting every time you switch on your computer, tablet or phone. But how important is it to accept these updates right away, or to adopt the latest version of an application or operating system?

The thing to remember about application updates is that they usually deliver relatively small changes. Those changes are typically bug fixes - some of which may plug security vulnerabilities - or modifications to provide compatibility with a new version of the operating system or some other associated product. Sometimes there are minor alterations to the features, with bigger changes reserved for upgrades that you have to pay for.

The trouble is that a single update can deliver changes in each of those areas. It's a good idea to apply security-related updates promptly, but what if that also removes a feature that you've come to rely on? Or maybe an updated application works with the 2016 SuperWhizzo connected automatic espresso machine that you've been itching to install in your own office, but not the 2014 model that you planned to relocate to the staff kitchenette?

What makes life difficult is that the description of the new version typically plays up new features and capabilities without mentioning things that have been removed or changed for the worse. This is especially true for mobile apps rather than computer software.

(No, we're not saying companies deliberately make things worse for their customers, but that a change that makes sense for new users can have a significant negative effect on the productivity and work practices of established users, at least in the short term.)

And it must be said that very rarely, despite all the testing that's done, an update is released with a major bug that in specific circumstances makes the software - or the device or computer in the case of operating system updates - unusable.

This presents a quandary: do you update promptly to ensure you are protected by the latest security patches, or hold off to make sure there's no bad news and that it's 'safe' to apply the update? It's a contentious matter.

According to some experts, security-related updates should be installed as soon as possible, especially when they involve vulnerabilities in software such as operating systems, web browsers, Adobe's Flash and Reader, Oracle's Java, and web content management systems such as WordPress. That's because the Bad Guys actively target such weaknesses.

But many people prefer to delay for a day or two. They let others act as guinea pigs to flush out any significant bugs or incompatibilities overlooked during testing and to spot any adverse changes. This strategy only works if they're prepared to monitor relevant user reviews (eg, in app stores) and online forums where such issues are canvassed - if no issues that would be showstoppers for them, they go ahead and install the update.

One problem is that if you don't update reasonably quickly you might forget to do it at all. That, and the "if it's working, leave well alone" mentality can result in security patches not being applied at all, which may explain why various attacks have succeded on a fairly large scale even though they exploited vulnerabilities that had been addressed by the vendors concerned a year or more earlier.

So our feeling is that on balance it's probably best to allow significant security updates to be installed automatically, or to apply them within a couple of days. If something does goes badly wrong, you should be able to recover reasonably quickly from the most recent backup - you do have a good, tested backup regime in place, don't you? 

And if you've got several computers or mobile devices running similar software, consider updating one so you can check that the functions that are most important to you still work properly before updating the others. Or take this idea a step further and carry out more detailed testing to make sure that the changes won't affect your established procedures. If they do, you'll then be able to provide your staff with revised workflows before they encounter the updated program(s).

Another good idea is that before you upgrade the computer's operating system (eg, from OS X Yosemite to El Capitan), check that your applications are up to date. The reason is that OS changes sometimes stop applications from working at all, in which case their inbuilt updating mechanisms can't fetch the new versions that do work. That leaves you with the chore of manually downloading and installing the latest versions, which is usually more time-consuming.

We'll look at the issues around upgrading software in part two.

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