What Microsoft can teach Apple about software updates

What Microsoft can teach Apple about software updates

Summary: I was stunned and angry when I saw Apple Software Update offering Safari 3.1 for Windows, with the check box obligingly selected and the Install button awaiting a click. Apple's defenders say it's no big deal that an update mechanism intended to deliver security fixes has been co-opted to help Apple with its ongoing hostile takeover of the Windows desktiop. I think Apple is dead wrong in the way it’s gone about using its iPod monopoly to expand its share in another market. Ironically, an excellent model for how its update program should work already exists. It’s called Windows Update, and it embodies all the principles that Apple should follow. See for yourself with this image gallery.

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Last summer, I looked at Apple’s announced plans for its Safari web browser and wondered out loud, Is Steve Jobs planning a hostile takeover of the Windows desktop? Apple’s decision last week to begin aggressively pushing Safari to any Windows user running iTunes (in other words, anyone with an iPod or an iPhone) made this part of my earlier post look downright prescient:

Does any Windows user want Safari on their current system? Unlikely. Does Steve Jobs want as many Apple logos as possible on the Windows desktop when it’s running on Apple hardware? Absolutely. Think of it as a hostile takeover of the Windows environment by someone who is an acknowledged master at the art. Just ask the music industry.

I got to see this most recent move by Apple up close and personal last week. For Christmas, I gave my wife an iPhone. Based on her response, it was one of the best gifts I’ve ever given; she raves about it and uses it more than any gadget she’s ever owned. I helped her set it up, gritting my teeth at the mandatory installation of iTunes on her PC, but accepting it and turning on Apple Software Updates to make sure she keeps up to date on the many, many patches for iTunes. And several weeks ago I reminded her that she has to take update requests seriously. Most of them are issued for security reasons, and I want her PC and our network to be secure.

So I was stunned and angry when I saw Apple Software Update pop up on her PC last week. There were no updates for iTunes or QuickTime, the two Apple programs I installed for her. Instead, using the same mechanism that delivers security updates, Apple Software Update was offering Safari 3.1 for Windows, with the check box obligingly selected and the Install button awaiting her click.

For the record, I think Apple is dead wrong in the way it’s gone about using its iPod monopoly to expand its share in another market. Ironically, an excellent model for how this update program should work already exists. It’s called Windows Update, and it embodies all the principles that Apple should follow.

Compare for yourself: see my image gallery comparing Apple Software Update and Windows Update. Which company does a better job of disclosure, consent, and respect for the customer?

Those principles aren’t esoteric or new. For the most part, they represent well-accepted behaviors that define the way software companies should respect their customers. Companies that deliver network-connected software that contains potential security vulnerabilities have a responsibility to offer regular updates to repair those issues. The right way to do it involves these four principles

  • Opt-in is the only way. The update process should be completely opt-in. The option to deliver software should never be preselected for the user.
  • Offer full disclosure. The software company has a responsibility to fully disclose what its software does, and the customer should make the opt-in decision only after being given complete details about how the update process works.
  • Offer updates only. Updates should be just that. They should apply only to software that the customer has already chosen to install.
  • Don’t mix updates. Updates that are not critical should be delivered through a separate mechanism.

In this post and the accompanying image gallery, I’ll walk you through how Apple offers its updates and how Microsoft does the same thing. After you see both procedures in action, you tell me who’s got it right and who’s doing it wrong. Note that I’m not asking you to accept my point of view. Look at the evidence and decide for yourself.

Here's the Apple way:

thumb1.jpg thumb2.jpg thumb3.jpg thumb4.jpg thumb5.jpg thumb6.jpg

When you install iTunes as part of setting up a new iPod or iPhone, the update option is selected by default. In other words, you must opt out of automatic updating. There’s no disclosure of what this option means, and several screens make references to updates to license agreements you never accepted. The license agreement for Apple Software Update does not describe what the software does. By default, Apple Software Update is set to check for “updated software” every week. This setting is not disclosed, nor can it be changed except after installation. After you install iTunes for the first time, Apple Software Update runs and offers Safari 3.1 for Windows. You can clear the check box for Safari and then close the Apple Software Update dialog box, but when the Update program runs again a week later, you’ll be offered Safari again. The only way to make it go away is to leave the Safari item selected and use a well-hidden option to suppress this update.

And now the Microsoft way:

thumb7.jpg thumb8.jpg thumb9.jpg thumb10.jpg thumb11.jpg thumb12.jpg

When you set up Windows for the first time, you see a screen that asks you to choose your update options. It's an opt-in system. There are abundant links to Help text and web pages that explain what each option does, as well as a link to the Update Services Privacy Agreement. Updates are downloaded and installed for Windows only, based on the preferences you set up initially. You can opt in to Microsoft Update, which enables updates for Microsoft programs other than Windows. There is ample explanation of what the options mean, and you must jump through several hoops to opt in to this program. Even if you choose to opt in, external programs such as Silverlight 1.0 are listed as Optional updates. The only way to see the list of Optional updates and install them is to visit a separate page, manually click the check box, and then click Install.

Compare those two systems in respect of the principles I outlined earlier. Apple offers an opt-out system, offers no disclosure, and mixes potentially unwanted software with its security patch updates. By contrast, Microsoft has a scrupulously maintained opt-in system, with full disclosure every step of the way.

Unfortunately, some people who spend most of their time in the Apple universe believe what they hear about the monster from Redmond, which leads even very smart people like the normally perceptive Dave Murdock, whose Inner Exception blog is on my must-read list, to get it absolutely backwards:

Windows Update (now Microsoft Update) pushes new software on [users], Silverlight is the latest example.

That’s wrong. Double wrong, in fact. Windows Update is not the same as Microsoft Update. As you can see, it’s a 100% opt-in program, and even when you choose to use Microsoft Update, there’s a clear, bright line between security-related updates and those that are non-critical. If you visit the image gallery I’ve put together, you can see for yourself that Silverlight is not offered automatically. In this case, at least, the knee-jerk criticism of Microsoft is misplaced.

All browsers have security-related issues. Safari is no exception. Adding any major application to a computer, especially a new browser, is not a decision to be made lightly. Even John Gruber of Daring Fireball, who enjoys pretty much the same relationship to the Mac universe as I do to the Windows world, agrees with me. First he quotes a reader, who “pretty much nails it”:

I’m all in favor of programs updating themselves — especially potentially network-exploitable apps like iTunes or QuickTime — but companies shouldn’t abuse that to push entirely unrelated software on end users.

And then Gruber adds:

The reason reactions to this controversy have been so polarized is that we’ve been mostly arguing about the wrong thing: how or whether Apple should offer new applications to Windows users via the current Software Update app. The problem is with the design of the Software Update app itself.

Absolutely correct.

Cupertino, get your photocopiers ready. In this case, at least, it's the right thing to do.

Topics: Microsoft, Apple, CXO, Hardware, Mobility, Operating Systems, Security, Windows

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325 comments
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  • Don't point the finger at Apple

    You can argue all you want about the merits of auto-
    updates and the format the providing company uses to
    provide this service, but at least Apple ask if you want
    these updates ... view this ZD Net article about MS
    updating your Windows system without permission, even
    when you have told it not to (Confirmed: Microsoft is
    fiddling with system files without permission)
    http://blogs.zdnet.com/hardware/?p=774 - i know I'd
    rather not trust MS with anything.

    How do you justify this Mr Bott?
    iSilver
    • It's an update to Windows Update

      Nice bit of misdirection.

      That update was hashed out months ago. It was one update to the update mechanism itself. There is nothing nefarious about it, and Microsoft acknowledged that they could do a better job with this type of update in future. Don't distract from Apple's very different move, which is using a security mechanism to push an entire software program.
      Ed Bott
      • Funny...

        to hear someone complain about one monopoly, claiming they should learn something from another (actually convicted) monopolist. I guess there really is one born every minute.
        jasonp@...
        • Monopolies aren't illegal

          Monopolies aren't illegal. Microsoft was convicted of trying to
          muscle into other markets with the power of their monopoly.
          Apple doesn't have a monopoly in music players (its
          debatable but my Microsoft fanboyism prevents me from
          seeing their iPod market-share as very strong. Trying to
          muscle into the browser market on the back of the iPod
          business seems a little anti-competitive, no? They'd better
          hope they're not a monopoly in the iPod market.
          [i]Vive la Zune! [/i]
          Chustar
          • The author...

            was the one to point out Apple's monopoly. If you don't like his designation, take it up with him.
            jasonp@...
          • Your the one that ....

            ... called Microsoft a convicted monopolist which is what implies criminality. It is also incorrect. Microsoft was never convicted of anything let alone being a monopoly. All the actions were civil and not criminal. The previous poster was right when he told you that being a monopoly is not criminal. You were wrong in everything you said.
            ShadeTree
          • Correction...

            A monopoly can only exist if, the government says so, and
            there are only a few monopolies which do exist. Most are
            related to power, gas, etc... If they do exist, they are heavily
            regulated, supposed to be. Now based on this logic,
            monopolies are illegal. iTunes is not a monopoly, nor is
            iPod. Because something has the largest market share, does
            not make it a monopoly.
            cashaww
          • Re: Correction

            [i]Because something has the largest market share, does
            not make it a monopoly.[/i]

            Then Microsoft isn't a monopoly either.

            Misusing the popularity of a popular product to force users to use other products from that same company is, in my opinion, abusing your monopoly position. And that's what MS did with IE and Office, and what Apple does with the iPod: using it to force owners to use iTunes, Quicktime and Safari. You may like the software or not, but it is never the own choice of a Windows user and iPod owner to install it.
            Rubix_z
          • If it's such a problem why are people getting iPods?!?

            They all know you need iTunes. So, it's a monopoly because Apple created software to compliment their hardware? I guess OS X is a monopoly to eh?
            Kid Icarus-21097050858087920245213802267493
          • Re: If it's such a problem why are people getting iPods?!?

            If Microsoft is such a problem, why do people get Windows?

            Because it plainly works better than competitive products. Same for iPods: I like my iPod but I don't like iTunes.
            Rubix_z
          • Actually

            Monopolies are illegal, anti-trust suits were filed against the Bell companies forcing them to break.
            jphines79
          • Thats not why AT&T broke up into the Bells

            They were broken up because it was known that AT&T would unhook a competitors switch and equipment from their network, or charging them an outrageous amount to hook up to their network then changing their equipment so that their competitors equipment no longer work. (sound familiar?) there were also reports of At&T technicians "accidently" dropping the competitors equipment and breaking it. That is why the anti-trusts were filed.
            Being a monoply is not illegal, using your monoply to completely snuff out all competition is illegal.
            NoThomas
          • Monopolies are not illegal ....

            ... and the Bells were not split up by anti-trust procedures. They were split up by the legislature.
            ShadeTree
          • Actually Microsoft wasn't ....

            ... convicted of anything. To be convicted of something one must be tried in a criminal proceeding. All of the actions against Microsoft have been Civil.
            ShadeTree
      • Neither Windows Update..

        nor Apple's update are specifically 'security mechanisms.'
        Windows Updates also offer to update or install software for
        reasons that have nothing to do with security.

        I see nothing nefarious in a window that specifically states
        what it will do, and gives you the option to deselect specific
        downloads, or cancel all downloads with a single click.
        msalzberg
        • you forgot to add......

          [i]I see nothing nefarious in a window that specifically states what it will do, and gives you the option to deselect specific downloads, or cancel all downloads with a single click [b]every time it loads[/b].[/i]

          You forgot to add "every time it loads" to the end of your sentence. You're welcome.
          Badgered
          • You added too much.

            It's not "every time it loads." You do have the option,
            [i]clearly marked[/i] to ignore any particular download.
            Period. The only way it can be restored after that is to
            specifically select to "Restore Ignored Updates."
            Vulpinemac
          • I don't believe I did

            [i]You added too much. It's not "every time it loads".[/i]

            Yes it is... unless you know where to look.

            [i]You do have the option,[b]clearly marked[/b] to ignore any particular download[/i]

            Sure... Clearly marked under the [b]Tools[/b] option on the menu. Are you honestly suggesting that any average user (read non-techie) is going to know where to look for that option? If it isn't on the screen in front of them, they won't find it.
            Badgered
          • OK. Every time it loads.

            And then, horrors! if you still don't want to download it, you
            deselect it. If that's too much effort, I'd suggest a gym
            membership.
            msalzberg
          • re: OK. Every time it loads.

            [i]And then, horrors! if you still don't want to download it, you deselect it.[/i]

            Click... No I don't want to install Safari
            Click... No I don't want to install Safari
            Click... No I don't want to install Safari
            Click... No I don't want to install Safari
            Click... No I don't want to install Safari
            Click... No I don't want to install Safari
            Click... No I don't want to install Safari
            Click... No I don't want to install Safari

            You don't see any problem with that? Ok... I know where you're coming from now.

            I know, Click Tools, Ignore selected updates. Exactly how many non-techie users will look for that? Or better yet, know where to look for that? No.. what will happen is Safari will get installed on their PC's whether they want it or not. Which is exactly what Apple is hoping for. It's a sleazy practice and for you or anyone else to dismiss it as anything else is wrong.

            For the record, when MS forcefully installed an update to Windows Update even though users selected not to have any updates installed was equally as sleazy. So congratulations, Apple is now just as bad as Microsoft.
            Badgered