Similarly, our Windows, Apple OS X and Linux operating systems will often perform scheduled updates and this helps keep our systems in good order. Software programs need updating too, and these enhancements are typically delivered in the form of a so-called “patch” updates. Once again this is not a problem, but what is a patch, how does it work, what does it do and is a patch update always a good thing?
A software patch is so named because it usually quite literally covers a hole. Patches are often released to fix bugs that have been reported by users, or found by a vendor’s own lab development teams. Patches often fix security or stability problems and may be related to compatibility issues thrown up by the arrival of new device types or communication protocols or one kind or another. Very often though, a patch may simply be released to provide new features; so by and large a patch release is almost always a good thing.
Patches are generally provided free of charge and not billed as some higher level “version upgrade” that the software vendors will seek payment for. Happy users who benefit from free patch upgrades are more likely to pay for commercially marketed version changes when they come, or so the theory goes. Users will often need to be registered owners of a particular piece of software to be offered a patch; this helps wipe out piracy and also helps the vendor market major new version releases when they come.
Patch upgrades are usually downloaded “on top of” existing software installations. Registered users may be asked to submit unique OEM (original equipment manufacturer) product number identifiers to receive patch access, but this is a good thing as it promotes user confidence in the security of the software being downloaded at any one time.
Small to medium sized businesses large enough to employ an IT manager may find that that IT has a “patch management” programme in place to look for updates and make sure that users all have current software programs running. Individuals and smaller companies should not feel troubled by this more formal approach; software vendors often use email alerts and on-screen pop-ups from within the software itself to inform users that a patch may be available.
Patches may be channelled to “fix” a software programme itself, or may be more finely tuned to amend and manage some element of the software’s supporting data; either way, the process of patching is likely to result in safer usage and (very often) better performance.
While open source software patches can require more technical user competence to “compile” and install, generally speaking patches will be supplied by proprietary software vendors in the form of what is known as a “binary executable”. In very simple terms, this means that the user runs the patch and it will modify the binary files that go to make up the structure of the software program itself. The user really doesn’t need to know this detail, but it is fun to have this background knowledge – and, crucially, it once again underlines the importance of using registered original copies of all software programs and an umbrella level of protection from a reputable Internet security anti-virus specialist such as AVG.
Upward from smaller software patches releases, more substantial patches enter into the realm of “service packs” or as “software updates”, a subject we will cover in a subsequent posting.