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Dave Wilson

Patches Can Make Even Bigger Holes

April 19, 2001|Dave Wilson |

Imagine one day getting a postcard from the folks who built your car offering to make a few improvements for free: maybe slap in air conditioning, put in a tilt steering wheel or add heated seats. Things like that do happen, but usually only because there's a safety issue involved--like "We've noticed drivers tend to lose control at highway speeds, so we'll attach a spoiler before you kill your entire family and sue us into oblivion."

That's because changing the physical layout of manufactured objects is pretty expensive, what with development, shipping and installation issues. So don't look for free mag wheels from Ford any time soon.

But lots of our machines have entered the nonphysical age. The characteristics of the objects around us are often defined not by the corporeal organization of matter but by the ethereal combination of 1s and 0s. Today, many devices are infinitely malleable. The software that drives them can be changed years after the physical circuitry is manufactured. It's a whole new, impermanent way of considering the world.

This is both very cool and a little scary. For instance, I have a digital camera that was having some trouble getting the white balance just right. It turns out that the camera's manufacturer, Nikon, has software available that, when downloaded from the company Web site and fed into the camera, alleviates that problem and tweaks a number of other minor issues. The download improves the auto focus and lets me take more pictures faster when I shoot in a rapid series.

Poof. Instant upgrade.

In the past, I would have grumbled about problems such as the white balance, made do with the camera I had and waited for the next-generation camera to address the issue. If I were really honked off about it, I would have bought my replacement from another manufacturer.

But today, you're no longer stuck with what you take home from the store. It's like buying a coach ticket and winding up flying first class. Sometimes, sadly, it's the other way around.

Part of the reason this happens is manufacturers rush products out the door before they're ready. It certainly would be nice to buy something that doesn't need a software update right out of the box.

But it's also nice to be able to upgrade. Some companies--Nikon among them--charge a fee for a significant upgrade. But if the only difference between the latest device a company makes and the one you purchased a year ago is software, why not pay a fraction of the cost of the new product just for that code?

This doesn't always work, of course. Compaq briefly distributed a software upgrade this year that left some owners of its hand-held iPaq with a pocket-size bit of ballast. Unlucky users who'd fried their iPaqs with the faulty installation had to return the units to Compaq for repair.

In general, most changes lie somewhere between the useful patch I found and the poison pill swallowed by the iPaq owners. Most upgrades make lots of changes. So to get something you really need, you might have to accept something you're not all that thrilled with.

Some TiVo owners, for instance, aren't happy about the fact that a recent software upgrade to their digital television recorders changed the way the remote works with a specific feature. Unfortunately, such bulk alterations probably are inevitable. Given the complexities of software, manufacturers would find it difficult to support a universe of devices that didn't largely share all the same computer code. Mixing and matching might be possible someday, but right now it's pretty impractical.

To give the devil his due, Microsoft does do a good job of breaking up patches for its software and operating systems so users can pick and choose which upgrades they want to install.

A more pressing concern is the alteration of your devices automatically. Take your television system. You might like the way your cable or satellite service displays and manages the program guide, an increasingly critical issue for systems with an otherwise unmanageable number of channels. So what happens when you wake up one day to discover that the program guide has been fundamentally altered in a way that makes it less than useful for you, such as reducing the size of the display by 75% to squeeze in advertising?

I don't have any great answers for these problems. I just know when I get into my car tonight I'm going to be grateful that I don't have to worry about where the speedometer is--not that I normally pay that much attention to it. I just take comfort in the fact that it won't be jumping into the glove compartment.


Dave Wilson is The Times' personal technology columnist.

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