The Perils of Perennial Updates

by | 7 Nov 2019 | Blog30, Working Out Loud

Are you like me? Do you find the allure of a new version of an app you use almost too tempting not to try? Sadly, early adoption of such tech temptation isn’t always a safe sport!

The benefits of Microsoft Office 365 are undeniable. While a subscription service, the benefits included with the standard applications make the cost per year a price worth paying. I pay £47 per year for the entire Microsoft Office suite on macOS, Windows, iOS and Android. Cloud storage space alone would cost £95 from Dropbox (2TB), £84 from Apple’s iCloud (2TB) and Box doesn’t even offer in excess of 100GB of storage. Not only does Microsoft Office 365 include 1TB of cloud storage and 60 Skype minutes but it is also the only way to fully utilise the iOS and Android versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and more.

While there are those who steadfastly refuse to submit to a subscription model , the value is exceptional. In recent months I’ve seen even the traditional stragglers tempted to subscribe and thus upgrade their apps that were previously several versions back. Their reasons have included the upgrade being a cost effective update. Other have mentioned the extra benefits in addition to the apps they are currently using. A few others were concerned with the security vulnerabilities of running increasingly older versions of the apps.

With all these benefits why wouldn’t you upgrade? Why would you choose to use older versions when you consider all the attendant benefits of the new Microsoft Office 365 options?

Long time users of technology are going to recall those times in the past when a rush to update or upgrade rendered previously perfectly functional software completely borked. It’s happened to me and if you’ve used technology long enough doubtless it’s happened to you as well. A seemingly minor update that proclaims itself to be no more than “bug fixes” suddenly and unexpectedly breaks something so fundamental to your workflow that you are left taking twice as long to achieve something innocuously simple as when you were using the older version.

A calamitous incident burnt in my memory is a very minor update to Microsoft OneNote. The allure of the update was undeniable as it added a whole new range of options to the Mac desktop version. Sadly that wasn’t all the update did: it completely broke the ability to navigate by word using the option and arrow keys. Something that I could have told you I used a far bit but even I had no idea how crippled my workflow would feel with this feature stripped from my armoury. I spent the ensuing two weeks cursing my every use of an application that previously I’d loved using. I took to avoiding trying to use it at all dealing with all the havoc that engendered with my workflow. I tried to use the iOS version when I could, I even resorted to using the Windows version. Not that that helped much as the keyboard shortcuts I so love to boost my productivity in the Mac version are all completely different in the Windows version. Even I couldn’t believe how the loss of only one simple set of options drove me to distraction. Now imagine that instead of only losing a shortcut you lose an entire feature or range of features. Multiply my agony a thousand fold.

Often these changes are very subtle, you might not even notice them. If you open a Word file in a new version of the application do you carefully check every line of the document? Every calculation in an Excel file? I’d suspect not.

This rush to update was brought home to me when a client rang me in a complete panic after subscribing to Microsoft Office 365. They had drunk the cool aid. Installed the apps on a production system and carried on working. Nothing catastrophic for the first couple of days and then disaster struck. They opened a database in the new version of Access. Actually, to be more precise they attempted to open a database in the new version of Access.

Access wasn’t playing along. It displayed error message after error message and once these had been consumed by the ever increasingly anxious audience summarily closed itself down.

Bad enough if this database was ancillary to the business but it wasn’t. It was an invoicing database, very cleverly crafted in its day, that linked to the company billing system. Without a functional version of this database no invoices could be generated, with no invoices sent out there would be no revenue coming in. It doesn’t really get much more business critical than that does it?

Now, it’s not a simple matter of changing a few characters or pushing a button to update a file when it’s a database. An almost forensic analysis is needed. The first step of which was finding a way to open the offending database. The live copy of the database had automatically upgraded itself and now couldn’t be opened by the previous version of Microsoft Access. Do you have access to a previous version of the software? The client didn’t. Luckily I did and back to Office 2016 I went. That also generated errors on opening. I went back to Access 2013, same problem. I went back to Access 2010, same problem. Back to Access 2007, still no joy. Eventually, I was back in Access 2002 and finally I could gain access to all the tools I needed to actually see the structure of the database.

Software that was released 18 years ago? How many average users have access to that? I can’t think of any that I know that’s for sure!

How to solve an issue such as this? Everything in the database needed that forensic analysis. Every line of code, every dependency, every single element needed checking for compatibility with the new version of Access and compatibility with every other element inside the database.

It’s a long, complicated, detailed and time-consuming process. Did I mention expensive? It’s very expensive too!

Why is the process so tortuous? Simply because the, often subtle, changes deep within a complex app such as Access can have a catastrophic impact on the carefully crafted code rendered confused by those subtle changes. In this case the catastrophic impact was to the point of repeatedly crashing the entire application.

How should you avoid such a calamity? The best way is create a test environment and throughly test each and every application you intend to update with copies of your files. At a minimum the files that are critical to you. Document absolutely everything as you undertake this testing and be proactive seeking solutions to issues you may find along the way.

Only then can you confidently enjoy the benefits of that Microsoft Office 365 subscription!

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