If you're into upgrades, the last couple of weeks have been interesting. Adobe released version 6 of its free Acrobat Reader for PDF files (and version 6 of the paid-for Acrobat, which can create them); Microsoft released a security update for Windows 2000 and XP; and Apple Computer encouraged - no, implored - users to make the most incremental numerary upgrade imaginable of its iTunes music program, which matured from version 4 to 4.0.1.
None marked a real step forward. Only Adobe's added any notable functionality (you can now search multiple PDFs for a word or phrase). The other two were in effect backward steps. Microsoft's VPN (Virtual Private Network) product for Windows 2000 and XP was downloaded by about 600,000 people, a notable number of whom then found that they couldn't get back online to use it. Microsoft withdrew it, having found that something in the program conflicted with some antivirus software.
And the iTunes upgrade? Apple pointed to slight improvements in sound quality, but the principal aim was to plug a loophole in version 4 that made it possible to "stream" music from your computer around the net - in effect, to become an internet radio station. The update limits that "radio" effect (which Apple calls "rendezvous sharing") to a maximum of 254 machines on the same local network as you. "All iTunes 4 users should upgrade to iTunes 4.0.1," said Apple, keeping a lid on its desperation. The trouble was that if record labels (who provide the material for its online music store) decide they don't like this "sharing", they might stop providing Apple with music to sell, strangling themusic store soon after birth.
So, three upgrades, but not a lot of improvement. Which tempts one to ask: what's the point of upgrades at all? Hardware upgrades are easy to understand: they're faster and cheaper. Software upgrades? Hmm... Some require you to pay a fee, and often they don't work any faster. They're understandable when they bring whizzy new features - as iTunes 4, introducing the Apple music store connection, did.
But often there's no substantial point in upgrades. Programs get updated for two reasons: first, to fix bugs and bring real improvements; second, to make people think that the concept their program embodies isn't dead. It's the equivalent of a programmer throwing open a window and yelling: "I'm alive!"
Bug fixes are one thing. Sometimes they're essential to close a dangerous loophole. (Or, in Apple's case, an embarrassing one.) But there's no compelling reason to move to Acrobat Reader 6. Pretty much everything it does could be done with Reader 3, and that was released in - good grief - November 1996.
So why release it? Because Adobe wants to remind people that the PDF (Portable Document Format) system is alive and thriving. That's essential because commercial software follows a life-cycle: the uncertain steps of infancy, the prodigious expansion of early youth, and then the slide into maturity until it disappears, overtaken by something newer. There's not a lot happening among HTML editors - that had its explosion six or seven years ago. Tools for bloggers, on the other hand, are still in their early period, when real upgrades come around every few months.
But just as ageing Hollywood stars keep popping up in films because they've got bills to pay and, more important, don't want to be forgotten, so programs such as Acrobat get some extrasto put them back in the software limelight, however briefly. But the process of upgrading software can become a chore. Once you've got enough software on your machine, you could spend all your time ensuring it's all up to date - sometimes only to find that the new version is worse because it introduces more serious bugs than it fixes. As with Microsoft's VPN program. There, the problem is understandable. It can't test a new version against every device driver and third-party program. If things go wrong, Microsoft can only do its best; which in this case is to withdraw the program and find out what's bugging it.
It's the same problem that it faces with Windows - which is 50 million lines of code, grows 20 per cent with every release, is put together by 7,200 people, comes in 34 languages and has to support 190,000 devices. No wonder integration fails sometimes.
Apple's iTunes, meanwhile, seems to be moving into a sort of middle youth, where development belies its relatively old age. Having started as an MP3 player, it has morphed into the stall for the online music store and, of course, a form of DIY radio station. That's a lot of added function in just a few years.
You can mark out how mature an area of software is by how fast the useful updates come. On that basis, one might say that the world of Windows (the OS) is a bit stagnant just now: Bluetooth functionality has come only hesitantly. Big changes are being saved, it seems, for "Longhorn", at least two years away.
Still, iTunes 4.0.1 may win a place in some software hall of fame as the first upgrade that is unequivocally a downgrade, with less functionality than the previous version. Let's hope it's not the start of something bigger.