Version-less software not so simple

Ever since computers were invented and software problems began, we’ve started every problem-solving dialogue between user and expert with the question “What version are you running?” That the user usually responds with the enlightening “I dunno…” is the reason support staff, still have jobs.

Anyone who makes a living at the fine art of fixing computer problems knows that verifying version numbers is the most crucial step towards finding a solution. This learning is neither speedy nor easy. The certificate of learning hanging on the walls of computer problem solvers are printed on skins of hundreds, if not thousands, of wasted hours solving problems already fixed in the latest release.

Problem solvers who live by the big picture understand the following: If a problem happens once, it’s a problem. If it happens twice, it’s annoying. If it happens three times, it’s a pattern… Fix the pattern.

Asking the version question first is a good solution, but it isn’t the best solution. The best solution is to make sure that only one version is in use.

Until the Internet was pervasive, this solution was only a pipe dream. But now that it’s almost ubiquitous, it’s time to stop messing about with multiple versions.

As usual, the entertainment industry leads the way. Magic the Gathering is a trading card game and Wizards of the Coast Inc. is the company that created and distributes it. They are in beta test of a facility that will allow players from around the world to play the game online. They currently have more than 90,000 play testers registered in the system and at any instant in time, close to 1,000 players are active.

Without explaining how the game works in detail, suffice it to say that there are about 10,000 unique cards, each with its own attributes and rules of play. All these cards interact with each other across about two dozen areas of influence important to game play.

To this mix, add in the ability to trade cards, a central repository of approximately 1 billion cards, the ability to re-establish an active game if one of the players is disconnected from the system for a few minutes, several different versions of multi-player games and a tournament structure. What you have is a nightmarish project – one where asking “What version are you on?” isn’t the right approach to problem solving.

The solution they’ve come up with is very simple. Each time you log onto the system, your version of the client application is automatically updated. You’re not given a choice. You’re always on the most active version of the software.

Obviously, for those applications where access to the Internet is not a mandatory requirement of the software, this would be more of a hindrance than a solution. I should not have to login to the Internet to use a graphics or spreadsheet application, but other products would appear to be missing an opportunity to reduce the workload at their call centres.

Two products I use on a daily basis come to mind, namely e-mail and browser applications. Personally, I’d prefer it if these products maintained themselves without getting me involved so I have more time to think. Unfortunately nothing is ever simple. Automatic updates pose some problems.

Automatic updates for games seem to work, because the user and developer have a fairly well defined and agreed upon goal – to make the game work. Business applications, on the other hand, aren’t so constrained in their scope.

For example, if my e-mail application does not do anything about spam today, do I want it to start deleting spam tomorrow without being involved in that decision? What about coarse language censors? What if the application provider decides to add a stock ticker tape to my browser? What if the upgrade ads nothing I value, but chews up another megabyte of memory, forcing me to upgrade hardware for the seventeenth time?

The advance of technology has this annoying habit of introducing solutions in one area that are totally inappropriate in another context.

Peter de Jager is Keynote Speaker & Consultant. His focus is Change in the context of desirable Futures. Reach him via or