feature article
Subscribe Now

Why Do We Install Software?

Exploring the Technical Reasons Behind an Old Procedure

“I can install toilets. I’m learning how to do basic wiring.” – Sandra Bullock

Why do we “install” software on our PCs, phones, and sometimes even embedded systems? Why don’t new programs just run right out of the box without going through the whole installation process? 

The procedure for installing (and later uninstalling) seems to go through phases over the years. With big room-sized machines attended by lab-coated technicians, you literally did install new software, in the sense of plugging in different boards, wires, and circuitry. Even though those early computers were programmable, the programs themselves were hard-wired. 

Videogame consoles didn’t always make you install games. You just plugged in the newest Nintendo cartridge and it ran. Uninstalling meant yanking the cartridge out. Same deal for early PCs with programs on cassette tape or floppy disk. 

Embedded systems mostly avoid the installation processes, but that’s by default, not by design. One good definition of “embedded system” is “any machine that ships with all the software it’s ever going to have.” No aftermarket software? No need to install it. The operating system and its applications are one and the same, now and forever, amen. 

But Windows, MacOS, Linux, and other modern operating systems make us go through an install process for each new program. What’s up with that? Same goes for smartphones, although the installation is largely hidden as part of the vendor-mediated download. 

We take it for granted, but why is installation even necessary? Why can’t we simply load and run new programs like those old video game cartridges? Skipping the installation step would improve the “out of box experience” for new applications. It would also eliminate the painful and often unsuccessful uninstall process, which invariably leaves unwanted cruft behind. Most of all, skipping the install/uninstall procedure would leave the operating system untouched and comparatively reliable. There’s no downside. 

Granted, there are some cases where an install process seems warranted, as when the program insinuates itself into the operating system’s GUI. Sometimes we want to right-click a Windows file and have the new app’s options appear in the pop-up context menu alongside the standard OS options. That’s slick, and it clearly needs integration with the Windows GUI or it wouldn’t work. 

Cloud storage options (OneDrive, iCloud, Dropbox, et al.) fall into this category, too. They need deep OS integration in order to appear seamless, and that requires an install process and a reboot. Sometimes you need to hook an interrupt, change a driver, or fiddle with file associations. Okay, I get that. 

But what about the other 95% of apps we install? Why do spreadsheets, word processors, email programs, games, web browsers, weather monitors, and other familiar miscellany need to spend the first 20 minutes of their lives going through an extensive install process? Why does anything from Adobe take so long? What deep OS integration do they need that wouldn’t be better accomplished by just… running? 

I’m convinced that eliminating software installation completely would make operating systems faster and more reliable. That goes for desktops, laptops, phones, embedded systems – all of it. Without third-party tinkering, the OS and its drivers would remain just as the developer intended. API calls can (or should) provide all the interface that third-party apps need. All application-related files stay in their own directory/folder, and “uninstalling” consists of deleting that directory tree. No muss, no fuss, no leftover detritus. Is your system slowing down over time as you install more programs? Can’t blame the installer. 

Debugging gets a lot easier, too, because you’re not left wondering how much of the code is really the OS vendor’s work and how much has been tampered with by a succession of installed/uninstalled applications and drivers over time. Better yet, digitally sign each executable file so you always know exactly whose code you’re looking at. 

Or, we could just rethink this whole reprogrammable computer thing and treat everything as a closed embedded system with all the code in OTPROM. The factory gets one shot at shipping code before it’s set forever. Better yet, replace all the software with hard-wired circuits. Then replace the circuits with real hardware, circa 1890. That’ll fix them ornery bugs.

Leave a Reply

featured blogs
Feb 28, 2021
Using Cadence ® Specman ® Elite macros lets you extend the e language '”€ i.e. invent your own syntax. Today, every verification environment contains multiple macros. Some are simple '€œsyntax... [[ Click on the title to access the full blog on the Cadence Comm...
Feb 27, 2021
New Edge Rate High Speed Connector Set Is Micro, Rugged Years ago, while hiking the Colorado River Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park with my two sons, the older one found a really nice Swiss Army Knife. By “really nice” I mean it was one of those big knives wi...
Feb 26, 2021
OMG! Three 32-bit processor cores each running at 300 MHz, each with its own floating-point unit (FPU), and each with more memory than you than throw a stick at!...

featured video

Designing your own Processor with ASIP Designer

Sponsored by Synopsys

Designing your own processor is time-consuming and resource intensive, and it used to be limited to a few experts. But Synopsys’ ASIP Designer tool allows you to design your own specialized processor within your deadline and budget. Watch this video to learn more.

Click here for more information

featured paper

Use Configurable Digital IO To Give Your Industrial Controller the Edge

Sponsored by Maxim Integrated

As factories get bigger, centralized industrial process control has become difficult to manage. While there have been attempts to simplify the task, it remains unwieldy. In this design solution, we briefly review the centralized approach before looking at what potential changes edge computing will bring to the factory floor. We also show a digital IO IC that allows for smaller, more adaptable programmable logic controllers (PLCs) more suited to this developing architecture.

Click here to download the whitepaper

featured chalk talk

Medical Device Security

Sponsored by Mentor

In the new era of connected medical devices, securing embedded systems has become more important than ever. But, there is a lot medical device designers can borrow from current best-practices for embedded security in general. In this episode of Chalk Talk, Amelia Dalton chats with Robert Bates from Mentor about strategies and challenges for securing modern medical devices and systems.

Click here to download a whitepaper called "Medical Device Security: Achieving Regulatory Approval"