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Software will often update itself over the Internet - IF YOU LET IT - so - how to choose

Why should I care about this? - stop reading if it wouldn't matter if your PC crashed fairly frequently

Allowing software to update itself CAN be beneficial to you BUT be very wary when the proportion of new code and features compared to that which is maintaining the stability and resilience of 'what works'! even reaches 10% and even lower than that if your PC is actually critical to some work or personal activity in your life.

See Self Updating Software for a brief history of where it comes from and where IT wants to BE! The reason that you SHOULD CARE is because over time this software will reduce your PC to an unresponsive, complex shipwreck where the 'crew' are visibily in battle with each other at the expense of your productivity and time.

So who are the companies that want to 'push' software onto your PC and how you should resist IF that is the correct approach for that vendor.

Company and product

What is updated

Notes about the company and their products



Adobe Flash player, Acrobat Reader, Shockwave and now -

Software - very, very much at risk - see Gumblar - latest (Jun'09) drive-by threat

Adobe aim to provide an exciting, visual interface to the world of I.T. but that constantly changing environment will be a rollercoaster of change and too high risk for many

There are alternatives to SOME products - e.g. Acrobat can *usually* be replaced by Foxit Software

IF your PC has to be stable and secure then avoid these products and if you can't then call us...

AVG Antivirus(AV), Link Scanner(LS) and SafeSearch(SS)

Mainly Data in AV, probably 50:50 software with LS/SS

AVG want to become the provider of your total PC security suite - and get paid for it

Link scanner and Safesearch can be disabled at install time

There are now (Jan'13) reports that AVG is "pushing" their Firewall in their "race to dominate".

Link scanner and Safesearch may slow your browsing experience and may get in the way of it in visual ways too - if you feel you want help when surfing maybe allow them to run. We no longer recommend AVG (see Personal Software) so have no recent or first-hand experience of AVG choices at installation.

Microsoft Windows Update, Office Update

Software very much at risk

MS are keen to retain their monopoly of the desktop. Most CRITICAL and SECURITY updates actually NEED to be APPLIED.

Automatic updates can be selectable and done when YOU want BUT they ARE NECESSARY!

See Windows Update - Settings and Advice for a description of how to set-up Automatic updates while retaining some control and lowering risk to your PC

Microsoft Live Messenger, Media Player

Software very much at risk

MS choose certain products to keep their user's noses firmly on the technology treadmill and insist far too frequently that users upgrade

If you have the option then always download EACH NEW version of software into a folder that YOU can control when and if it is used.

If the option to the left IS available it avoids the problem of being forced into skipping a stable version of software (because they want you to have the very latest!) by allowing you to install any version they no longer offer but you then have that immediately brought up to a good level of security etc. immediately after being installed.

Some tricks that Software Vendors play with their prospects/customers

Software that 'pretends' to be a small download but ACTUALLY HUGE

Several companies now package their software such that the download size APPEARS to be very small but in fact what you have only downloaded the code which will prompt you for some basic details before dumping a pile of bloated software onto your PC. Example are Adobe, Yahoo and SOME MS products but I expect the trend to increase as companies realise that many people do not want their PC experience to be switched in emphasis and direction towards them.

Offering "simple" or "easy" options that hides mal-intent

Increasing dramatically during 2011 THE! scam tactic is to offer "Default" option(s!) during installations which hide the damage they propose to do to your device - see the rest of this (tricks) section below. When you take a "default" or "recommended" option you should always consider who has defined the selection and with what likely motivation(s).

The good news is that when taking the "Custom" option you are very, very likely to be given their preferred option as default each time but the difference is that YOU can choose which to accept.

If such decisions are not easy to make / comprehend / understand likely consequences then a short phone call is often all that is required - see contact details below.

Places that Software Vendors often try to 'acquire' your eyeballs

IF you are lucky you will get a choice of NOT TAKING various additional pieces of software that they want to 'GIVE' to you. They are usually:

  • Toolbars which appear at the top of your browser and
  • Browser 'Add Ons' that can be even worse in that they can make changes to the actual pages that you want to see before you see them. They can also stop you visiting or even seeing the links to web sites that THEY DEEM to be 'bad for you'!

Displacing other vendor's products so they offer a one stop "convenient" shop

One downside of running any software from a 3rd party is that it has control of your PC and as such it could, unilaterally! decide to displace software from another vendor with their own - assuming they could justify having the same functionality but probably not many other aspects of it!

Most vendors would at least ask the user before taking such an action but it is unlikely that any justification for doing so would give an unbiased view of the benefits and risks.

Their motivation for this tactic would almost certainly (98%) be "for profit". Their logic would probably be to establish their product very visibly on your device in many areas, especially if security and/or safety related! When they then announce a new release or simply add a new but chargeable feature then the user would be coerced (or simply tricked!) down a "path of least resistance" into starting to pay a subscription - perhaps small to begin with and no doubt rising over time.

All of the above are now very common for both FREE and Chargeable software.
Almost all software providers are commercially focussed and become predictable at the different stages of their marketing and adoption cycles.

Where does software that automatically updates itself come from?

Some software companies at least allow you to limit their 'push' of software onto your PC to security and other critical updates - Microsoft is (for once?) in prime position but perhaps only because of either antitrust laws or customer feedback!

Many software vendors get a foothold (a.k.a. beachhead!?) on your PC by offering something useful for free and then try to grow their prescence until they get you into a position where you are starting to pay them - either hard cash or advertising or by a miriad of ways which have yet to be discovered because at the end of the day they usually want to be rewarded for their efforts even if all of the latter are not always having your best interests at heart.

Many software vendors want to control the software that runs on your PC - some are actually criminals, many are not far from it and the few that are left are only constrained from taking over your PC by Monopoly Laws around the world.

Ignoring the criminals who use any and all malware to control your PC the biggest problem for end-users is knowing who they can trust to do what - not just from a perspective of ethical behaviour but what the supplier sees as their duty to users. Many companies who have aims which are generally to 'improve the web experience' of their users totally disregard the legitimate desire of many of their users who actually want to be on the safe but often trailing rather than the bleeding edge of technology.

Because Microsoft is constrained by Monopoly laws they have to be very careful about what software they 'push' onto your PC. Their whole software management and update system is forced to respect that users can choose only to have updates automatically applied which are defined as being 'Security' or 'Critical' to the running of their PC. This means that the BASE MS operating systems and components are USUALLY free from major injections of new code and functionality. As an example of where that breaks down is the "Windows Live Messenger" product which regularly refuses to run if you are on an old release - that is why that software is totally unacceptable on any PC which needs to be resilient and reliable.

In a similar manner - Adobe has two desktop products which are constantly requesting that they be updated and once you have gotten onto their 'technology treadmill' it can be very difficult to know when it is safe to 'get off' and because they have no constraints in law they tend to push users onto ever-increasingly recent software with the inherent risks that brings. It doesn't happen very often, but when it does - it can be a disaster - the latest was in July 2008 when an MS update caused ZoneAlarm to fail for millions of users around the world. The chaos was made worse by the fact that affected users lost access to the Internet and therefore didn't find out that they were 'one of a million' - they just had a 'broken' Internet and tried to resolve the problem as such.

If you don't understand some or all of the content of this page then click here for a simpler approach.

Should you back up your WINDOWS SYSTEM or your DATA before applying updates?

Windows updates are normally every month - the 2nd Tuesday of each so that millions of users and I.T. professionals at least have a regular date in their diary when they know they should check and almost always act.

(Windows) updates will ALMOST always:

  • Require a restart of the PC - so you mustn't hibernate (see Fast PC startup using no electricity) next time you are leaving your PC
  • Affect ONLY Windows software which should all be on your C: drive

For anyone who has a PC that is critical to their DAILY life then I recommend a BACKUP BEFORE they apply Windows Updates or indeed ANY SOFTWARE on their PC which they depend upon but especially anything which runs automatically on their behalf. Note that the updates made to MOST AntiVirus updates are 'Data Only' which means that their software is unchanged and as such they are 99+% likely to be stable after such a (Data) update.

Backing up your Windows System is not like backing up your Data - the two activities should be very, very distinct because the tools are completely different as well as the purpose. Personally I always use tools to backup Windows that I can run while Windows is shut down - this gives me a 99+% guarantee that what I have backed up is whatever state of the system that I closed down.

User data should not be affected by a Windows Update BUT you might want to use the monthly schedule to prompt yourself into backing up your own data! If your data is properly organised then you should be able to fit all of your data onto even quite small (PAIR! of) memory sticks because all of your 'media' files such as MP3, Video, Pictures (JPG) should be backed up onto (more than 1!) DVDs or CDs depending on how they are to be used for viewing and/or listening.

Windows Update - what are the options and which are right for me?

If the screens you see below don't cause you any concern then you can opt for a Windows Update option that gives you control over what is installed and when.

Although the focus of this page is preventing problems there are also times when you may want to delay the installation of something which Microsoft have deemed 'essential' because you might want to make a full systems backup for instance - just in case you really don't like the new feature(s).

A recent example is when MS made Internet Explorer release 7 (IE7) an 'essential' update and everyone who had automatic updates turned on had to learn how to use the new version and also choose some settings before allowing the user to research them on the Internet - not very user friendly.

Firstly you should click on the normal Windows Start button (or just press the 'Windows Logo Key' to the bottom left of your keyboard) and then click on 'Control Panel', which is usually half way up the right hand column. Then click on 'Security Centre'

This is the security centre of XP from Start -> Control Panel -> Security Centre.

This dialogue is not simple because the place that you click upon to make changes is where it says 'Security Centre' at the BOTTOM of the page as opposed to all of the status messages with similar text and the illusion of clickable buttons that are prolific above the actual link to click.

If you are on Broadband there is little downside in leaving the updates on the MS web site until you are ready to review, download and install them typically within a 10-15 minutes period. Bear in mind that updates often require a restart to become effective so you MAY wish to choose a time and day when that is convenient and start the download 20-30 minutes before you are ready to restart.

A 'reasonable' compromise between keeping up-to-date and avoiding the very occassional problem caused by updates is to take the 'Download updates for me, but let me choose when to install them' option. With THIS option you should wait until the update has had a chance to be retrospectively 'nuked' by Microsoft if it is indeed a 'bad' one. So waiting until the Thursday morning after an update would be a good time to allow your PC to install the update and remember that it is likely to want the PC to be restarted anyway.

If you are on dial-up then you would benefit from the downloading that can be done whilst you are generally surfing, especially as it happens 'in the background' without much disruption. The only downside is that your choice about installing them is typically 'all or nothing' whereas you get a choice with the option described above and below.

When there are updates to download you will be prompted by Windows - usually by a 'balloon' notification in the icon area in the far bottom-right of your monitor. You will then see the window to the left.

This window cannot be made to default to the 'Custom' setting so you have to remember to select that every time you get this window.

This window allows you to be selective about the updates that you download and gives you the control to avoid a bad update as long as you are aware that there is one and you know which of them to deselect.

Obviously you click on 'Install' when you are happy that the (ticked) list is what you want.

Please note that you fully SHOULD CLOSE DOWN your PC at the VERY LEAST EVERY MONTH** and my normal recommendation is every week(end).

If you have now changed your settings from Automatic to something where you have to 'opt-in' to the action being taken then you need two things:

  1. Remember that you will almost certainly need to apply the updates sooner or later and even if you are a 'safe surfer' then you are at risk for a little longer now
  2. Knowledge of when an update has got some potential downside! To that end we are considering creating a distribution list of people who would like to be notified of any likely problems with Windows Updates or indeed more than likely - not the case! If that would be of interest to you then please use the Contact us page to tell us of your interest, OTHERWISE we suggest that you bookmark the following Google query as a basic method of discovering any large-scale, generic problems such as the recent problems with Zonealarm.

    For a very, VERY brief comment about the status of patches then click here for a summary without details.

If you don't understand all or some of the content of this page

Obviously we can provide advice to suit your specific circumstances - call 0844 884 2244*¹¹ from a landline and we will be happy to call you back to find out what would be best for you.

If you want to take the best 'simple' option then we suggest that you:

  1. Make a note of the telephone number(s) to call in case of service failure(s) - there is a page here with a few hints and a form that you can use to document the contact details that you may need
  2. Bookmark the following page to use when you have connectivity problems... or call 0844 884 2244*¹¹
  3. Turn Automatic Updates ON - apply automatically - see the image above
  4. Make a note in your diary if it's easy to do so that every 2nd Tuesday of the month is 'Patch Tuesday' and if the next time you restart (boot) your PC after that you have a problem then you MAY want to refer to the page of hints above as you MAY have been given an update from MS that has caused the problem.
  5. Don't forget to restart rather than hibernate your PC (see Fast PC startup using no electricity) the next time you close your PC after 'Patch Tuesday'

I hope the information above has been useful, let me know if not! Any Comments, suggestions or corrections to: Contact us please. This would be especially useful if the software environment you have is different to mine and the headings, text or prompts are different.

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