Please Insert Disk 9: The Ease of Software Installations

Today is the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I wanted to acknowledge this here. Each year, on the morning of 9/11, I pull out my diary from the days immediately before and after and read through it. I still can’t watch the footage on TV. I don’t have anything original to add to all that’s been written about 9/11 these last 20 years. I know that there will be many, many things written today. We all mourn 9/11 in our own ways, and for those who have mourned, and need a respite from what can be a traumatic day of 9/11 posts and news items, I wanted to have a post people could come read that isn’t about 9/11 at all. But I wanted to acknowledge it here. As I said at the end of my diary entry on 9/11/21, “I simply can’t believe this.” I still can’t.

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I had a problem with my work laptop late last week. I use a MacBook Pro, and I run Parallels for Windows and database development. This has worked well for me for years, and I’ve never had a problem before, but on Thursday evening, Parallels crashes and the image corrupted. While my laptop is backed up, the Parallels image is not. I didn’t lose any data because data is not stored locally, but I needed to bring my laptop into the office to have the image reinstalled. When I got my laptop back, I had a clean Windows install, which meant going through the process of installing Visual Studio, Microsoft SQL Server Management Studio, and RedGate. This has been a time-consuming procedure in the past.

I chose to perform the installations in the evening with the thought that by morning, everything would be ready. After all, it was several gigabytes of installation files. I got the installers for the latest stable release of Visual Studio Enterprise, and SSMS, and began the installation process. It turned out to be far quicker and easier than the last time I had to do a full installation. After an hour or so, all of the software was installed.

Next, I had to configure SSMS to connect to the servers I wanted, but I thought instead that I’d give Azure Data Studio a try instead. This, too, seemed surprisingly easy to setup. Within a short period of time, I was able to connect to the servers I wanted; I was able to connect to git repos from directly in ADS, something I’d had to use RedGate for with SSMS; and I had access to Jupyter notebooks, which was an added bonus.

During this process, I noticed that both Visual Studio and Azure Data Studio now have native Mac versions. So I installed those on my Mac. Those installations were even easier (The architecture of a Mac piece of software is entirely self-contained within a “package” file that represents the application.) I then pulled the git repo for the big software project my team is working and to see if it would compile cleanly on my Mac. It did! It is now looking like I need to rely less and less on the Parallels instance.

Later, reflecting on how easy the installation was, I realized just how far software installations had come in the years I’ve been working with computers. The first install I did, when I was 11 years old, was for my Commodore VIC-20. I installed a Hangman program from the tape drive that was attached to my computer. Tape drives, in my experience, are notoriously unreliable. It often took several frustrating attempts to get the program loaded, and once it was loaded, I no longer felt like playing.

In the early years of college, I remember installing WordPerfect from 5-1/2 inch floppy disks. By my senior year in college, I’d moved to the far superior (in my opinion) Word 5.5 for DOS, which took a small stack of 3-1/2 inch floppy disks to install.

When I first started at my job, Visual Basic 3.0 required 3 installation disks. You had to put one in the drive, wait until that part of the installation had completed, then switch to the next. By the time the late 1990s rolled around, Visual Basic 6.0 came on a CD-ROM.

I can remember installations of Microsoft Office that took 12 or more disks–in some instances 20 disks, if memory serves. You couldn’t start the installer and walk away because you had to change each disk as it finished loading. Anyone who used computers in that era remembers the frequent messages “Please insert disk 9.” And heaven help you if one of the disks failed to work halfway through the installation.

It is possible that I imagined, back in 1995 or 1996, how wonderful it would be to simply be able to install the software you wanted without need of a disk. Just answer a few brief questions and BAM! the software was there on your machine, ready to use. This was just the kind of daydream I could see having, while sitting in someone’s office, waiting for Disk 9 to finish so that I could put in Disk 10, and wondering if the installation would be finished by lunchtime.

Today, my daydream is the standard. Want a piece of software? In most cases, click or tap the Install button from an App Store and it loads on your device within seconds. In some cases, as in installing Visual Studio, you have to download the software directly from the website. But the process is still far easier than it was 25 years ago. You rarely have to worry about configuration files, or which type of processor you are using; the installers figure this all out for you. If you are missing a critical system component, the installers know that, too, and will grab and install the necessary software. Then, too, the software will keep itself updated, which saves a ton of time in the long run.

Installing software used to be a real headache, but it has become so easy these days that I hardly even notice it. It is one of those things about technology that I simply take for granted, forgetting how different it used to be when I was starting out. Twenty years ago, software was still fairly difficult and time-consuming to install. Installations have come a long way. It makes me wonder, what will software installations look like twenty year from now?

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