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The annoying, essential economy of software updates

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If you're one of the nearly 60 million people expected to be firing up a new tech device this week, there's a good chance you're one of the millions stuck downloading an update to that device's software. That process can be a pain, but it's a reminder of how software and software updates course through an ever-growing part of our economy.

Brian Donohue puts himself through this anxiety ritual every few months. Donohue isn't downloading a new update to his phone though. He's uploading a new update to Apple's App store. He's the CEO of Instapaper, an app that lets people save articles for offline reading. It's a popular app — with more than 8,000 thousand reviews and many more downloads. Some weeks back, the Instapaper development team was huddled around their computers, waiting for Apple's App store to make Instapaper's 6.4 version available. 

"So it says 'ready for sale'," said Donohue. "It says 'ready for sale.' But it's not showing up in the app store yet." 

While his team waited, Donohue and his fellow developers were answering users' questions, refreshing browser windows and hoping for the best. For them, the update struggle is real and never ending: Bug fixes, security patches, new functionality and making Instapaper work better with new phone operating systems. Every few months Instapaper's team does this dance, just like software-development teams all over the world. 

Updates are part of a giant, growing software business. Back in 2012, the annual figure for the overall software sector was $526 billion, according to a report from the Economic Advisory Firm Sonecon. "That total is 3.2 percent of US GDP in 2012," said Robert Shapiro, Sonecon's chairman. "That's big." 

Shapiro says that in recent years, the big number has only grown. So has the importance of updates. The thing about software is that it upgrades your hardware without you having replace your hardware. And that's true everywhere, from your phone's apps, to space. 

The International Space Station (ISS) gets a massive annual software update. That software — 4.5 million lines of code — keeps astronauts alive. It regulates temperature inside the ISS, keeps air circulating and a host of other things. When it stops working, it's not good. That's what happened February, 2013. Colonel Chris Hadfield was onboard the ISS with five other astronauts, and he remembers it like it was yesterday. 

"We lost all contact with the ground," he says, "and we lost insight into all of the systems of our ship."

The culprit? A bad software update. It came from 17,000 miles below, where ISS development manager Marcy Kerr and her team had put it together. The 'initialization of data allocation error' that occurred when the software update was put into the station's various computers created major problems for the crew. And it took almost a week to fix. After all, there are 54 running computers on the ISS, and the software is very complex. Could the ISS do without updates? Since lives are on the line? 

"It's really not an option. For these software updates, we're not just fixing minor things," said Kerr. "We're adding major new functions." 

Kerr says it was just one line of bad code. Two years later, she still thinks about that bad line of code, and she and her team at NASA have put in new checking systems to make sure this never happens again. 

No matter how annoying it is to wait for or deliver a software update, they're not going away. Software as an industry is growing faster than a lot of other parts or our economy. Cars, pace makers, phones, tablets, production floor machines, all of these things now run software. And software? You've got to update it.

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