Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    Upgrades, fixes, antivirus products--the Internet offers regular tune-ups for your computer

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1996 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #359 September 10, 1996   High Tech Office  column

    Computerized business has spawned more than its fair share of unattainable promises: ideas like the "paperless office" that always seem to lie just one more hardware and software upgrade away. Similarly, the idea of retailing direct to customers via the Internet is still bumping down the runway, even though a few retailers are pulling off this trick.

    But what about selling software? On the surface, it would seem an ideal product: after all, software is just bits of information, and there's no reason it can't be distributed digitally. In fact, there's already an entire distribution channel known as shareware that allows software developers to market their product without the need for packaging, warehouses, or advertisers.

    But despite flurries of interest from the big, commercial software companies, digital distribution of major software products isn't here yet: like many limitations with the Internet, it comes down to bandwidth--how fast those digits can be stuffed through the pipe.

    Take a popular software product like Microsoft Office, which contains about 130 megs of code. If you're connecting to the Net by modem, like most users, a good connection might let you download no more than about a meg every five minutes or so.

    But while you probably don't want to download your main business software, getting upgrades and bug fixes this way is much more practical. In fact, most software and hardware companies are encouraging that route now, and make bug fixes and minor software upgrades available for free download at an Internet site bearing their name (try, etc.) or

    Even though these downloads can fix problems or add features, users have had to know how and when to seek them out, but this is changing as a wide range of companies work on ways to make this upgrade process automatic.

    The newest models of IBM's Aptiva line of computers, for example, can check in with IBM and upgrade their own basic software. Similarly, the newest version of Symantec's utility products for Windows 95 includes a feature called "Live Update": a single menu click will cause it to check in over the Internet with Symantec and automatically download bug fixes and updates if new versions have been released. This is especially useful for its antivirus product: Symantec updates its virus definitions on a monthly basis, but this is of no use if the consumer doesn't regularly get hold of it. A similar update feature is already included in Cyberjack, an Internet-connection package from Symantec's Toronto-based Delrina subsidiary.

    Several commercial ventures are aiming to make these sorts of capabilities more general. has set up a partnership with Symantec and Hewlett-Packard. Subscribers paying about $5 per month can log in and have their computer tuned up over the Net, checking for viruses and defragmenting hard drives. At the same time, the latest versions of HP printer-drivers will be installed, if required. (

    Oil Change, from Santa Monica's Cybermedia (www., tries to do even more. First, the software creates a profile of your system, listing installed hardware and software. Then it connects to Cybermedia's Internet site and checks whether newer versions of the hardware drivers or software products have been made available. The company is trying to keep a frequently updated database of this information, and if it finds newer versions listed, it will inform the user of what's available, what features are added, and what bugs are fixed. The user then decides whether to bother upgrading, and if the answer is yes, the Oil Change software will automatically download the fix and install it, backing up the old version in case the cure turns out to be worse than the problem. Look for an autumn release, for about $75.

    In the meantime, Windows 3.1 or Win95 users can try out a free beta (pre-release) version, and make use of Cybermedia's current database of about 75 companies.

    A Web site called Versions ( keeps track of upgrades of over 40,000 products, and its service will send you e-mail alerting you to new additions: it claims 13,000 subscribers. Not automated like Oil Change, but free.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan