Job 1 on the Desktop

Installing software is more vital than raw power.

Software installation is what most defines a computer, but its become one of the worst parts of enterprise computing. Complexity, inconsistency and risk of collateral damage entail substantial costs to IT vendors, administrators and help desks. Improving our IT experience depends at least as much on installation tools, management systems and higher-quality updates as on the growth of raw computer performance.

When software installation isnt a coherent process, systems wind up being badly compromised. "To apply an MSDE service pack, the user must determine which of 16 different Windows Installer (MSI) files was responsible for the installation(s) of MSDE on their desktop," observed "Directions on Microsoft" analyst Michael Cherry in his February analysis of Slam-mer—which Microsoft Strategic Technology Director Brett Arsenault called "fundamentally a problem of installers."

One solution can be the use of thin clients with locked-down software configurations, such as Hewlett-Packards t5700. It was a finalist in our judging of the Best of CeBIT America awards in New York last month and is much closer to full-strength PC capability than previous devices of this kind.

But in most applications, without flexible software installation, a computer becomes a relatively low-value appliance. Mere content is not software: a VCR playing a cartoon, for example, is clearly the same machine as the same VCR showing a performance of "Swan Lake," but a PC running a word processor is clearly not the same machine as the same PC running a network analysis tool. We depend on the ability to install new software at will.

Weve also learned, though, to be wary of rogue softwares ability to change machine function in malicious ways. Theres no way that playing a video on my VCR tonight can somehow alter its function so that it erases the tape I play tomorrow, but its all too easy for an e-mail message—let alone a software patch—to have any number of damaging side effects.

Paradoxically, were now in a time when people would like to be able to install more software, at more frequent intervals, as they gain access to broadband connections and as vendors incorporate software update facilities directly into platforms and individual software products. We see the contrast between "then" and "now" in successive court rulings on the Microsoft antitrust case and related lawsuits. In 1999, the court found that users could acquire third-party Web browsers by download, but that "this process takes a moderate degree of sophistication and substantial amount of time."

The most recent ruling, by contrast, vacated a lower courts injunction that would have required Microsoft to put Suns Java in the box along with Windows, determining that there were not grounds for finding "immediate irreparable harm" in shipment of Java-free units of Microsofts product. I have to agree. Any enterprise user who wants to access a Java-based Web site or run a local Java application can download needed software in less time than it takes to get a cup of coffee. Suns campaign to place "Java: Get It Now" buttons on Web sites, a prominent effort at the JavaOne conference in San Francisco in June, reflects the increasing importance and convenience of software downloads to any number of vendor initiatives and enterprise goals.

One afternoon at the end of June saw me downloading more than 100MB of software updates for my PowerBook, updating my Mozilla and Safari browsers and several other utilities as well as OS X itself. Mind you, there are downloads like these that I make without hesitation; there are others whose risk of collateral damage, as I perceive it based on past experience, limits my downloads to those of dire necessity. Providers in my "trusted" group are less likely to turn me into a costly problem for help desk personnel, either theirs or mine.

Thats why applications, utilities and platforms need to be designed with convenient and controllable update processes built in, not merely accumulating in haphazard tangles. Its why quality control for patches needs to be even more rigorous than that for initial shipments of products. And its why enterprise IT buyers need to place this issue high on their agendas with IT providers.

Peter Coffee is at