It’s time to stop what we’re doing for a second and talk about automatic updates! Unsurprisingly, I have Opinions.
Let me preface this rant by showing you a screenshot of my App Store screen:
I just updated, so there’s only 26 apps waiting for my approval here. Now, before you start worrying: I’ve squelched notifications for App Store, so I won’t have that angry badge staring at me every day demanding I satisfy it. Every now and then I’ll remember to go in there and have a look, and update the apps that have a proper written changelog.
This is important.
The “we release a new version every two weeks, please turn on automatic updates” crowd will suffer in my purgatory forever, because the only sane response to that sort of update policy is “fuck you, that kind of trust needs to be earned”. There’s no rollback allowed on these devices, and if you’re lazy enough to just hand-wave your release notes when updating stuff on my phone, you’re probably going to screw it up. Plus, whenever I read “bug fixes and performance improvements” I automatically translate it to “this update contains some awful new way of serving you ads and stealing your browsing history lol”. A changelog is just words and you’re probably still sending all my nudes to Silicon Valley or whatever, but it does take a few baby steps towards establishing trust.
I remember there being a brief window of amazing release notes a few years ago. I think Trello used to lead that charge: it would rattle off the changes and then it had these fantastic little pieces below, written by someone who obviously loved doing it. I’d read those tiny novels, and then I’d update my Trello app because I felt like these people knew what they were doing. Not only did they document their updates, they cared enough about them to do it with style. They added new features, changed old ones, and — importantly — they told me why. The Instagram app on the other hand was being opaque so I went months without updating it. The whole New Icon fracas came and went and I stood by, quietly enjoying the old app, watching it visibly degenerate and start looking more and more like a web page as the API changed. It still worked, though! When it finally broke down and I had to bite the bullet, I found it full of round portrait icons and unread indicators and Stories and algorithmic nonsense and really just all kinds of crap that was good for Facebook Inc but bad for me. They didn’t tell me what was in the updates because they knew I’d hate it.
And that problem, I think, goes to the heart of it. Most app updates aren’t even meant for me. I’m not buying your Meliorist nonsense. You’re probably introducing more analytics or messing with my patterns or slowing down the app or all of the above. And I need to know! Since there’s no going back to a previous version, I should be able to decide for myself if it’s worth it. Also, if there’s a bug in your update process, the probability of me running into it is 98.2%. I’m like a hyperventilating canary tied to a lightning rod when it comes to software updates. Practically every time I give in and update MacOS, my Ruby installation starts coughing blood and I lose a full day’s work to massaging dylibs and swearing. So “constantly working to improve the app, bah weep granah weep” is NOT enough. You need to make the update worthwhile and you need to tell me why it’s worthwhile, or I’m not going to do it. Period.
As a footnote, I think there’s an optimal timing to updating your software — with iOS you need to stay something like two minor versions behind and wait at least a month before updating to a new major version, and with MacOS I think the cadence should be even slower, giving patches and Stack Overflow time to catch up with the inevitable storm of bullshit. With apps, the current zeitgeist is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ so trust is everything and the only reasonable worldview is TURN OFF AUTOMATIC UPDATES OR DIE SCREAMING which is a sad state of affairs but, well, it’s 2018 and we’re mining bitcoin and building computer vision into missiles and updating our privacy policies and nobody really has any idea what they’re doing anymore