The Democratic People’s Republic of Windows Update

I’ve never seen a piece of software that’s tried over the years to make people hate it more and more than Windows Update. It’s evolved into what’s quite honestly a piece of full-fledged malware. Actually, if you consider the “Get Windows 10” nagware, you could even say it’s an entire suite of malware. I can’t say I’ve ever liked it. As a matter of fact, I think I’m starting to understand the nostalgia for Windows XP. Gone are the days when your computer does what you tell it to. You could turn it off completely, or, what I usually did, was have it set to just notify me and allow me to determine how to proceed. This allowed me to make sure network bandwidth and CPU cycles weren’t being wasted on a task that is secondary to what I am presently doing.

That said, this has been an issue for quite some time. Why write about it now? Because as of today, it’s more than an ideological annoyance. It’s become a full-fledged, practical problem. I’m developing and testing a piece of software that needs to be capable of running unsupervised for long periods of time (but fortunately, it won’t be running on Windows 10 in production). And presently, I’m trying to track down a bug in that piece of software that causes it to stop working after several hours. So I left it debugging in a Windows 10 VM overnight, to see if the stuff I had it logging would bring anything useful to light. I come back to that VM in the morning to see that it’s a clean slate. All the stuff I had open the night before – gone. Then I realized I’d forgotten to turn off the automatic rebooting behavior, that for some idiotic reason isn’t even given as an option on install, and is hidden in an “advanced settings” menu. There goes several hours of testing I had running to track down this problem.

Actually, this automatic reboot by default behavior goes directly against Microsoft’s Trustworthy Computing initiative. That is, their software should not perform a behavior that is unplanned. As a matter of fact, that’s exactly why they removed Easter eggs from their products. But at least an Easter egg never interfered with useful work. This automatic reboot on update behavior is like an Easter egg, but malicious. Oh, I see you’re running an important task? Let’s just shut it off to install a bunch of updates. Let’s insult the users by assuming that whatever they had running was unimportant. And what’s worse is that in Windows 10 Home, it isn’t just an assumption that you can correct with much effort. It’s mandatory.

Even as recently as Windows 8.1, we’ve had appropriate levels of control over Windows Update. But since then, we’ve gone from this:

To this:

Much like the telescreens in 1984, you can turn it down, but you can’t turn it off. And seeing the direction MS is going, they’ll probably soon take that ability away from us too, as they already have from the Home users. The good news is, it’s possible to get them to back down. Much to my annoyance, in Windows 8.1, the only way to sign in using a local account instead of a Microsoft account was to disconnect from the internet while you set up the system. In Windows 10, they finally gave an option to skip this. And of course, they also brought back the Start Menu after realizing the failure of their “everything is a tablet” mentality. And hopefully, we can get them to do it again. They’ve realized in the past that one-size-fits-all mentalities don’t work here. This is yet another instance of that kind of thinking, that needs to be removed. And I largely don’t get how it managed to sneak in there, when Windows 10 was largely supposed to be a backpedaling from such a mentality. Regardless, send Microsoft your feedback, as I’ve already done. Tell them you want control over your own updates. To quote the message that plays before movies about texting during the movie, “IT CAN WAIT!” I’m sure to Microsoft’s QA department, fixing an issue that surfaces on one in a billion machines is top priority. To me, the fix itself gets in the way of vastly more important things. At least give the users themselves full control over how important those fixes are to them. If your software matches your priorities and not your customers’ priorities, your priority isn’t your customers, and soon your customers’ priority won’t be you. The trend is starting to move in favor of giving control to the users. Look at Apple in the last couple of years. Third-party keyboards, ad blockers for mobile Safari, and the ability to run your own code on your device without paying for a subscription. Meanwhile, Microsoft is trying to move Windows Update in the opposite direction. It’s becoming a piece of malware. It’s something I’d remove entirely if given the option, in favor of just downloading the updates manually and installing them by hand, when I’m not trying to accomplish more important things.

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