Friday, April 30, 2004

Buggy updates.

Have you noticed how the more frequent updates a piece of software has, the buggier it gets?

Steam is a piece of software to allow a game publisher to push the latest and greatest updates out to their customers. Marvellous. It sounds wonderful. It's also extremely buggy. I find that if something has more and more updates pushed out (not in terms of volume, things obviously get better over time, I'm talking frequency), it gets buggier and buggier.

Steam has had problems with it's anti-cheat system banning innocent people, so they had to roll that update back. I find that most programs with an Auto-update feature suffer the same sort of fate at some point in their lives. AIDA32 was a wonderful program I used to use to find out what hardware and software was in PC's. It had an auto-update feature that one time updated to a version that crashed every time I loaded it.

I'm assuming that it is because of the lack of testing that comes with frequent updates but I find it strange that an idea that is supposed to help the average user actually puts them in bigger trouble that letting them get on with their old versions.

Steam supposedly once announced that it would release an update every Wednesday. That was an oversight too... lets update one million clients all at the same time every week? Marvellous. And the bloody things tries to run at computer startup unless you stop it (I use StartupMonitor and StartupControlPanel from Mike Lin, personally).

Now, Windows Update isn't a bad idea. I'm not sure at all about it being automatically running on every new operating system and downloading every update in the background as soon as it can. First, it means that Windows Update gets slogged on every update, sometimes it's even been taken down by sheer volume of traffic. Second, it means that any buggy update will automatically be installed. I like to have control over things like that, especially with things like the Windows Media Player 9 EULA. If I'd have left Windows Update to automatically get updates, I'd have all sort of rubbish like 200 megs of .NET Framework cluttering up my Windows 98 machine. I don't want them and don't run anything that needs them.

I'm also thinking... what if someone can propogate a rogue update? I'm assuming things like Windows Update and my software's Auto-update features have some sort of identity-based security on them, otherwise it's quite hideous to think of someone sending me a skillfully crafted update which could compromise my machine. A little DNS-spoofing here-and-there...

eBay have a program called Turbo Lister to help you create lots of eBay auctions quickly. My girlfriend uses it for every auction she makes and it's very quick compared to any other method. However, before you can upload any created auction, it insists on updating itself first. This program is also as buggy as a dead carcass that's been in the sun for a week. Also, the updates do things like change the categories as eBay shifts them around. That auction you place under Books\Computing now belongs under Books\Non-fiction\Information Technology or whatever. In doing this, the auction fails to upload until YOU fix it. Why can't the update know what it changes and do it for you, obviously with some sort of confirmation?

I'd just like to make it clear, I'm not talking about anti-virus software updates here. I don't think I've ever heard of them doing any damage, or updates to programs like Ad-Aware... updating a database that a program uses is a lot different to updating the program itself. In those cases, I don't mind frequent updates, I even praise them but it seems to be the case that the harder you try to push updated software out quicker, the more problems the update will make.

It a "hare and the tortoise" situation, clearly.

Cool or not?

I've noticed a trend in the past few years. It's always been present but I've only just recently picked up on it. When Linux first came along, everyone thought it was the best thing since sliced bread. Soon, people were insulting their previous Windows comrades for not using such a wonderful piece of software. Many jumped on the bandwagon and started berating whoever they could.

A year or so later, this "Linux is cool" philosophy still stood, but people started to talk against Linux. Apparently, it was the thing to do to point out where Windows was brilliant and Linux was duff. That's the trend that I'm talking about.

When something new comes out, everyone loves it and starts talking it up over it's alternatives. It becomes "cool" to be pro-whatever. A year or so after, it then suddenly becomes "cool" to go the other way and say "whatever's not so great, the old thing was better". I've noticed it with Windows/Linux, and with lots of other things. Counterstrike, being one of my most recent PC games (yes, you heard me) suffered the same fate (albeit in reverse) when it caught Steam fever. At first, everyone thought Steam was bad and hated it. Now people are praising it's good points louder than it's bad. It's also recently gone into another phase where it's suddenly bad again.

I don't know about anyone else but, yes, I do get first impressions. At first I may think something is wonderful but I soon pick up on it's flaws quite quickly. I am very careful when evaluating something new to be cautious and to express it's good points only as good points. I don't claim things to be the be-all-and-end-all of everything until I've tested them for my purposes, thoroughly.

With the Windows/Linux debate, my reservations on judgement don't seem to have been held by the majority of people. I first got a whiff of Linux around the 2.0 kernel release. At the time, few people had heard of Linux and even fewer had ever used it. I was using Window '95 at the time, having just "upgraded" from Windows 3.1. I had got hold of a CD of this mysterious new operating system and I tried it out. I loved the speed, the simplicity, the bare-nakedness of a command line reminding me of DOS, which I was already very familiar with.

I got things working, I had XFree86 up and running with my strange, exotic (cheap) hardware and it worked and I could see that, for free, this was indeed a fantastic piece of work. I knew then that it wouldn't be replacing the Windows desktop any time soon, but I sincerely wished (and still do) that it would. I tried it. I saw where it was difficult or did stupid things. If people asked me afterwards what I thought of Linux, I could tell them.

Just because it's good, doesn't mean it's going to take over the world. I run a Linux router on my home network. I also have installations of Linux dotted around various computers. I'm in the process of making more and all the time, I've used it to make lovely little black boxes... computers that don't need to be touched to do their job, faceless machines that do what they are told, first time, every time.

My brother knows very little about Linux. I set up a Linux router where he presses a button on a joystick attached to the machine disconnects and reconnects, should there be a problem. Another button cuts out any modem connection that may be on - a relic feature from the old days when it was purely a modem-based router and our parents complained that they wanted to make a phone call. Another button brings the modem back on.

That same router is still in operation. My brother knows that all he has to do is turn it on and it will do it's job - he'll be on the internet. It very, very rarely fails us. Another similar machine is a print server. If that is on, he can print - it'll go through to any one of a number of printers - it's his choice. Rarely does that fail... in fact sometimes it's a bit too failsafe and remembers print jobs even after being rebooted so that I have to log in and cancel them for him. I'm replacing both the above with an updated machine that can do the job of all of those and that'll be Linux too. That's what it's good for.

Blackboxes are where Linux's strength was and is, but I do hope that it moves further. During my time using Linux and talking to people, though, I keep seeing this pro/con attitude cropping up. At first, me being able to run another operating system that never crashed was very impressive to other people. People asked how they could get it and I used to tell them all of the downpoints... sorry, it can't run your games. Online, people were claiming that Linux could do everything and everyone should be using it.

Then I'd meet someone on the internet a year later and it'd suddenly be old hat and I should be using Windows to do it and Linux was shit because it couldn't run anything. Linux hadn't changed that much over that time, if anything it had improved, but it was suddenly cool to call everyone an idiot because they were using it.

I like to think that, after a brief initial investigation, I know what an operating system can and can't do and where it's forte lies. I don't want to be a this-is-cool-that's-not person, I want an opinion, one that doesn't change over time without significant cause, an opinion doesn't mean something is either black or white... most things are zebra-coloured, with many good points and many bad points. I think Linux is marvellous and always have, but I know how and why and where it's marvellous, I don't assume it can do everything and then slag it off when it can't.

When I first installed a Steam version of Counterstrike, I could see that it was a neat idea, albeit poorly executed. I foresaw problems of constant updates keeping it buggy (another rant I really should get around to writing) and possibly changing the gameplay. I wasn't shouting it's praises at the start or calling it names when it started to have problems because I could see what it was and I wasn't about to jump on a bandwagon just for that.

It reminds me a little of politics. The reason I have never voted and don't intend to? There's only one person in the entire world who could do what I would do if I were in power. That's me. I vote for me every time. If I voted for a party, I would have to agree with every single little policy that they have otherwise I'd just be a hypocrite. (Oh, and for the arguments I get about people having died for my right to vote... I don't know how many times I've heard this... nobody died for my right to vote, I would hope that they died for my right to freedom, to vote how I choose, to do what I felt was right and to have the option to choose).

Similarly, I don't instantly jump on a Linux-is-brill bandwagon only to jump onto the Linux-don't-do-what-I-want bandwagon later on. I always stand firmly in the middle and see what's good and what's bad.

Virtual Reality, yet to become a reality?

Whatever happened to the Virtual Reality we were all promised in the nineties?

I can remember seeing VR everywhere, on TV in programs like Tomorrow's World, in the movies with films like Lawnmower Man, in books and even in the arcades. Virtual Reality was the promise of being "in" a game rather than just playing it. People used VR to show you how new town centres would look, to interact in virtual worlds and even more.

Now, I'm not personally interested in shaking hands with someone from the other side of the world in VR, it always seemed a bit of a waste of money and effort, but the games aspect has always amazed me. I envisaged a world where, in a few years, when you put on one of those silly headsets instead of getting plain-shaded triangles which are supposed to be a person, you got Quake-style 3D graphics.

VR seems to have all but disappeared into the 90's, some relics still remain in the form of VRML (Virtual Reality Markup Language... an attempt to integrate VR into the web) but graphics and computer capabilities have soared to the point where if a Hollywood film doesn't use computers, they can't get the look they want. Even entire films are computerised nowadays, Finding Nemo and the like, but VR has stagnated in a back cupboard somewhere.

Where are the VR games? Where is Counterstrike through a headset? Where can I play Doom 3 and Half-life 2 in full, moveable, three-dimensional interaction? I want to see these games bring VR up-to-date. Imagine not going to paintball or quasar... why can't we go to a Counterstrike session, 10 on 10 in full kit and blow the crap out of each other with toy guns running around a warehouse shaped to be similar to de_dust? We'd have silly riot-type helmets which would put us inside the map and make our shots seem real. When we were killed, we'd have to sit down until the round restarted, making our corpses a VR-visible obstacle for the other player to have to jump over or pick their way past.

Players and "guns" would be tracked using some sort of primitive GPS-type tracking within the warehouse. The scenery would exactly match and the computer would know where each person was, when he fired and who he would have hit if the gun had been real. It'd be so accurate that you could tiptoe along the top of a ledge in your virtual world and it'd correspond EXACTLY to the "real" ledge in the warehouse. No more stacking, though, unless you were part of a human acrobatics team and could do it in real life. No more skywalking, either, and you'd think twice before jumping off the top of the ramp to get into the tunnel in de_dust!

Maybe then we would see who can actually hold a sniper rifle still enough to pick people off with an AWP, and those who like to camp in one place for the entire round would have to cope with getting cramp!

I can't understand why we've had the technology to see into a computer-generated world for over a decade, and the abiility to make a computer-generated world look almost photo-realistic is upon us, but we can't seem merge the two technologies and make some money off of it.

Do we really have to leave VR back with the flat-shaded polygons while we blow limbs off of a photorealistic 3-D monster on a flat-screen?