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February 26, 1996

Upgrade packages learn the fine art of self-healing

Last week I described software that implements a better way of upgrading to new versions. I called this self-healing software, because the user does little or no work, other than clicking a menu to launch the upgrade process.

Sometimes, not even that is necessary. The software dials up the vendor's BBS or the World Wide Web site itself and automatically installs any components that are newer than those on the currently installed version.

Compare this with the usual upgrade process. The user must obtain new disks from a software store or directly from the manufacturer, or must download a compressed file by modem. The file then must be decompressed, sometimes requiring a separate program. The user must then run a specific setup routine and sometimes must know details about the old software's configuration to finish.

The worst aspect of this process is how it holds back users' knowledge. Because software stores return software boxes they think are obsolete, vendors tend to keep quiet about minor upgrades, fearing bankruptcy from unlimited returns. But many users could benefit by knowing a better version is available.

Self-healing software solves many of these problems. Software stores can continue to sell version 1.0, 2.0, or whatever major number is printed on the box. As soon as a user installs the product, the software can automatically connect the PC to the manufacturer's site to look for any minor upgrades and patch the software up to version 1.0a, 2.0a, and so forth.

This level of automation, of course, assumes that the user's PC is equipped with a working modem. But until modems are standard equipment on all new PCs, self-healing software will initially appear mostly in packages appealing to modem users.

Sure enough, one of the first self-healing packages is Delrina Corp.'s Cyberjack, an Internet suite. You click Setup on the main menu, then click Upgrade. Cyberjack connects to Delrina across the Internet, and installs any upgrades it finds. You do have to restart Cyberjack, but that requires a lot fewer steps than upgrading.

I'm happy to preannounce that, sometime in the next few weeks, Cyberjack users will find something at headquarters to upgrade to. The upgrade adds, among other things, a Telnet client and support for Hypertext Markup Language tables, an important Internet text-formatting standard.

Windows 95 was supposed to offer this kind of automated upgrade via the Microsoft Network (MSN). But the recent Service Pack 1 for Windows 95 still uses many of the bad old manual upgrade methods.

To upgrade to Service Pack 1, set your Web browser to Click Windows 95 Service Pack 1. You are instructed to close all applications, suspend System Agent (if you installed it from the Microsoft Plus Pack), and create a new, temporary folder. You then go back to your browser and click Windows 95 Service Pack 1 Update. This downloads a 1.2MB file. Windows 95 somehow misnamed this file on my test system, so I had to rename it SETUP.EXE. Running this executable extracted the relevant files and copied them to the System folder, among other places. But I had to delete the Setup file and remove the folder manually.

By contrast, the Microsoft Network updates itself a lot more gracefully. Clicking an icon on the opening MSN screen takes you to an Explorer-like window. Running an icon in this window automatically downloads and installs the new software.

Brian Livingston is the coauthor of the new Windows 95 Secrets and author of three other Windows books (IDG Books). Send tips to or fax: (206) 282-1248.

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Copyright © 1996 by InfoWorld Publishing Company


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