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Rhodri Marsden: We have no choice but to ride out the upgrade cycle of life


A friend of mine is, in computing terms at least, stuck in 2005, a time when Tony Blair was still Prime Minister, Sven-Goran Eriksson was still the England manager and people were buying records by Crazy Frog.

Having failed to upgrade any hardware or software due to a combination of obstinacy and lack of cash, he now makes music using gear that's a decade old; he's imprisoned in a world of systemic obsolescence where manufacturers no longer care about him and if anything breaks he's reliant upon second-hand eBay trawls to put things right. Part of me thinks he deserves a round of applause for not meekly succumbing to pressure, but eventually he'll have to begin the expensive business of rebuilding everything from scratch.

That was a parochial tale of a man you have little interest in, but contriving to avoid expensive cycles of software and hardware upgrades – both of them constantly nudging at the limits of the other – is becoming increasingly tricky. Software updates are relentlessly pushed to our phones, tablets and computers; nagging alerts urge us to take the plunge and background changes happen without our knowledge. In truth this is often a good thing; it's reasonable to put our trust in companies who promise us greater security, improved features and streamlined operation.

But it doesn't always work out, and undoing the damage done by nefarious upgrades is far from easy. New versions of apps are sometimes not as bug-free as they claim, but once you've upgraded it's not easy to get the old app back. Sometimes upgrades can be actively damaging; in recent weeks Google Chrome has been delivering updates to a small number of third-party browser extensions that are infected with malware – not directly Google's fault, but a consequence of some less-than-watertight rules for developers that are, apparently, due to be tightened this summer.

Sometimes there will be ill-advised changes to the software that leaves you feeling disgruntled. And sometimes you'll have some peripheral hanging off a USB port that won't work with the software any more, and for which new drivers aren't available, which means buying a new peripheral to replace it. That's a hefty penalty for approving an upgrade.

Dare to go online and complain about any of this, however, and you'll be met with contempt from those who know better. "Well, you shouldn't have upgraded, should you. Tough." This was particularly conspicuous when millions of iPhone users unwittingly upgraded to iOS7 last autumn, only to be horrified by the flatter user interface.

We place our trust in automatic upgrades because if we didn't there would be little time to enjoy our lives. But there's a price to pay for the innovations that new software delivers, and that's new hardware to cope with it. That's the upgrade cycle and, ultimately, there is no alternative than to go with it.