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Time for Microsoft to Take a Hard Look at Windows Update - and What They're Using It For

Windows Update makes it simple to determine whether a system has the latest updates. But all is not well in Windows Updateland: several recent problems for Windows XP users can be traced back to how Windows Update works - and how Microsoft uses it

Windows Update's periodically caused problems, but lately, it seems as if Windows Update's really been gunning for Windows XP users. Consider the following:

1. Microsoft installs an update to Windows XP's version of Windows Update in July and August. Unfortunately, the update doesn't work properly after a repair install of Windows XP, leaving as many as 80 updates in limbo.

Users wind up running repair scripts or using Dial-a-Fix to repair the problem, or revert their systems to an earlier state using a disk image created with Norton Ghost. For details, see Microsoft's Stealth Update of Windows Update Backfires - Big Time.

2. Microsoft pushes Internet Explorer 7, orginally developed for Windows Vista, out to Windows XP users using Windows Update. Unfortunately, the combination of Windows XP, IE 7, and Adobe Acrobat or Adobe Reader exposes users to a dangerous malware threat that uses the Mailto: URI. Adobe rolls out updates to Acrobat and Reader 8.1, with updates for Acrobat and Reader 7.x on the way, but Microsoft is still only in the advisory stage of responding to the threat.

3. Windows Desktop Search 3.01 for Windows XP is notorious for slowing down system performance (see comments on this article), but Microsoft is now including it as an optional software update through Windows Update! Users who use Automatic updates get it, whether they want it or not.

What's going on with Microsoft and Windows Update? While users of Windows Vista are seeing their operating system get more stable, faster, and better able to cope with the newest technologies, Windows XP users are seeing problem after problem.

Here are a few speculations as to what might be happening behind the scenes:

Microsoft might be using its "B-team" to maintain Windows XP, and putting its "A-team" on Windows Vista.

After all, Windows Vista is the future - and the money to be made is not to be found in a six-year-old operating system.

Why I might be right:

Windows XP users seem to be getting software that's sloppily coded (the problems with Windows Update were caused by improper handling of some of WU's DLL files) and a lack of interoperability testing. Let's face it,it's one thing to have problems caused by mixing XP, IE 7 and some obscure program that 20 or so people are using, but problems with the lastest versions of Adobe Acrobat and Reader? Ridiculous!

Why I hope I'm wrong:

In a world in which MacOS X-based systems are growing in popularity and more vendors are offering Linux on both desktops and laptops, Microsoft is in no position to give the back of its hand to existing users. Although Vista's far better today than it was in January, most Windows XP users are still waiting for Vista SP1 before they switch. If Microsoft is no longer caring enough about its installed base to avoid fundamental programming problems, those users might switch, all right - to a MacOS-based system, or they might ditch Windows for Linux.

Microsoft may have lost sight of what Windows Update is supposed to do for users.

When Windows Update was first released, support staff across the world cheered because it gave us a consistent way to keep systems up-to-date. Our main concerns, then and now, include stability, security, and performance.

Unfortunately, Windows Update's been a two-edged sword. Because Microsoft seems to have taken the attitude that users can't be trusted to make decisions, the default settings for Windows Update install every update when the Express option (the recommended default) is selected.

Why I might be right:

What logical reason is there for shoving a known performance problem to users (Windows Desktop Search 3.01)? Microsoft seems to be using Windows Update as much for control of systems as for fixing security and reliability issues.

Why I hope I'm wrong:

We need Windows Update. I'd hate to go back to the days of manually examining DLL file versions to determine what updates had been installed. But, we need Windows Update - and software delivered by Windows Update - that works.

What You Can Do About It

If you are using the default Automatic setting for Windows Update, it's time to stop it. You, not Microsoft, need to decide what updates to install and when to install them.

If you manage a corporate network, consider setting aside a system or two that use default combinations of hardware and software and perform your own interoperability testing on updates received via Windows Update, especially for Windows XP-based systems. Microsoft should do this, but if they don't, somebody should.

Don't be the first on the block to install new updates. Let somebody else find out what's wrong with them.

Push back. Let your Microsoft sales, account, or support reps know you're tired of cleaning up messes they're causing. You might need to mention that there are other products in the world beside those coming from Redmond - and your company is seriously considering them.

Windows Update, on balance, has prevented far more problems than it has caused. However, the problems I've noted here suggest that Microsoft shouldn't be resting on its laurels. We need Windows Update - and the programs it installs - to work right and be the right choices for users.

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