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Auto-update programs
technofile  by al fasoldt
Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology 
Simple gray rule

Are auto-update programs worth the trouble?

Bit Player for April 13, 1997

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1997, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1997, The Syracuse Newspapers

Updates can drive you crazy. McAfee has been doing it to me lately, coming out with a major update to its antivirus software that made my professional McAfee AV program obsolete a month after I set it up.

Competition is the culprit. McAfee and Symantec (maker of Norton products) are fighting over every potential customer. Normally, competition is good for all of us, but this kind of competition—in which competing claims make you wonder who's really telling the truth—seems to be going too far. Can't we settle on the right mix of good software and stick to it for at least a year?

I suppose we can't. Antivirus software is more important than ever before, and updates are needed to combat new viruses. The same principle holds true in the browser wars, where Netscape and Microsoft have had to post new versions of their software just to fix security problems. These updates are vital. We're stuck with the problem of downloading them and installing them.

Add that to all the other software you and I are downloading week by week, and we've got a major headache.

Some of you have asked me if any of the auto-update programs now available would make sense. These programs search your hard drive to make a list of your software, then travel out onto the Web to look for updates. Oil Change is one that many readers mention, and there are others, including some that are built into major system-maintenance programs. You can even find some free on the Web.

I've tried out some of these programs. I don't use them—I'd rather take care of my own updating—but I know how helpful they can be to others. Here's my general view.

The best kind of auto-update software would be a program that does everything for you. It would catalog everything (not just the major items on your disk), search the Net for every possible update, download them unobtrusively, remove the old versions and install the new ones.

No auto-update program does all this. All the ones I've seen deal only with common software—with updates, say, for Internet Explorer, Netscape Navigator, Norton AntiVirus and programs of that kind. (Sometimes hundreds of programs are listed, but none of the updaters I've tried know anything about such vital but lesser known programs as Zip Folders, TextPad, HyperSnap and scores of others I use.

Worse yet, the update programs uniformly ignore all the unofficial updates for world-class software. Good examples are the dozens of add-on features Microsoft has made available for Office 97 and, especially, for Outlook, the outstanding central application for Office 97. These are true updates to the functions of Office 97, but aren't included in the database of update software because they are not official products. (Go to, and for some of these items.)

Automatic removal of the old software is another essential function missing in all the update managers I've tried. Why should you have to do this yourself? The model for how this should be handled comes from McAfee, which refuses to let you continue to install a new version of its antivirus software until you've agreed to let the newest version remove the old one. Everything is automatic from that point on.

My advice: Don't expect much from Oil Change or any of the other automatic-update programs. If they help, fine. If not, you won't be very disappointed.

Next week: Where to find the official updates for Windows 95 -- and which ones count.

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