Another month, another load of patches from Microsoft.
This month we have seventy-one bulletins and corresponding updates. One hundred and twenty-six vulnerabilities are addressed in all, affecting .NET, Internet Explorer 9 and 11, Edge, Office, SharePoint, Visual Studio, OneDrive, Skype, Windows, and Windows Defender. Nineteen of the vulnerabilities are flagged as having Critical severity.
Those of you running Windows 10 know the drill: depending on which version of Windows 10 you’re running, you can delay installation of updates for a while, but not indefinitely. On Windows 8.1 computers, Windows Update is still the best way to install updates. Windows 7 users don’t have an official way to obtain updates for that O/S, despite the fact that Microsoft continues to develop them.
On a related note, you may have noticed that Microsoft is pushing its new Chromium-based Edge browser to all Windows computers. This is happening not only on Windows 10 computers, but also those running Windows 8.1 and even 7. The new Edge cannot be removed in the usual way once it’s installed. This is causing consternation for many users, as Edge seems to take over once installed, forcing the user to make certain choices before the desktop can even be accessed. Isn’t this the kind of behaviour that got Microsoft in trouble in the 1990s?
With Windows 10, Microsoft shifted a lot of their testing to users, through the Windows Insider program. Anyone can join the Insider program, and what you get is early access to new versions of Windows 10.
In return, you are expected to provide feedback to Microsoft when you encounter problems, primarily via the Windows 10 Feedback Hub app. I’ve used the Feedback Hub, and Microsoft does indeed seem to look at — and act on — user feedback.
While I do appreciate having the option of contributing to the quality of Windows 10, it seems clear that relying on users for testing is woefully inadequate, and hardly a substitute for systematic, formal software testing. Each new set of Windows 10 updates, and especially new versions, seem to cause more problems than they solve.
At least updates can now be delayed. Earlier versions of Windows 10 forced new updates on all computers. Without the ability to to put off updates, these unwanted and problematic changes would cause worldwide carnage at least every Patch Tuesday.
Hey, Microsoft. Thanks for giving us the option to help out with Windows testing. But please go back to doing more formal testing. Nobody needs these headaches. We’ve got enough problems without you piling on.
Windows 7 support ended earlier this month, and with it any hope of fixing newly-discovered security vulnerabilities. Or did it? Microsoft recently discovered a problem with an update, released in Novemeber 2019, that is causing problems with desktop wallpaper on Windows 7 computers. This isn’t a security issue, but it probably affects thousands of users, and Microsoft has now released a special update that fixes the wallpaper problem. You can get the update via Windows Update on Windows 7 computers.
Microsoft’s plans for expanding advertising in Windows 10 continue, albeit very slowly. The latest change is in Windows 10’s default rich text editor, Wordpad. When you run Wordpad, you’ll see an advertisement for Microsoft Office. It’s not much, and many users will never see it, but I’m reminded of the proverbial frog in steadily-warming water.
Microsoft’s shenanigans with Google show no signs of slowing down. Both companies have engaged in questionable behaviour in trying to promote their software and services. The latest shot from Microsoft is particularly annoying: when Office 365 updates itself — a process that is both frequent and difficult to control — it will look for an installation of Google’s Chrome web browser, and change its default search engine to Bing.
Microsoft has a history of inappropriately reverting settings during updates, which is annoying enough, but this is excessive and downright spiteful, in my opinion. Microsoft, please play out your differences with Google in a way that doesn’t annoy millions of users.
Update 2020Feb11:Microsoft relented, and won’t be switching Windows 10 searches to use Bing during Office 365 updates. I guess they realized that they didn’t need yet another public relations disaster.
Please either allow us to disable Windows 10 updates, or stop pushing out updates that break millions of computers worldwide every few weeks.
Almost a billion Windows 10 users
The problems with Windows 10 updates are getting worse, not better. The last major feature update (1903) had major issues at release, and more seem to be turning up with each new set of “quality” updates. Those quotes around the word ‘quality’ are very intentional, by the way.
I’ve just spent most of a day troubleshooting and fixing a heinous set of problems related to printing, affecting most of the computers at a retail client. Printing is a critical function for this client, as it is for most businesses.
What follows is the sequence of events leading up to the printing problem, and what finally fixed it.
All of the computers are running 64-bit Windows Professional release 1903 (build 18362.356).
SUMMARY: Update 4522016, which apparently caused these printing problems on some computers, was never installed on any of the affected PCs at this business. Update 4524147 caused the printing problems it was supposed to fix. Uninstalling update 4524147 fixed the printing problems on three otherwise up-to-date Windows 10 PCs.
2019Oct03: Update 4524147 was installed automatically on all affected PCs. This happened overnight, which is normal for these PCs.
2019Oct04: The client reported printing problems on several PCs.
2019Oct04: The usual troubleshooting for printing issues was ineffective. Research eventually showed that a recent Windows update (4522016) was causing printing problems for many users. But that update was never installed on any of the affected PCs.
2019Oct04: Since printing was working fine before 4524147 was installed, I uninstalled that update, and printing started working again. Repeating this on all affected computers resolved all the printing problems.
2019Oct05: On trying to log into one of the recently-fixed PCs, Windows 10 told me that the Start menu was broken. Research showed that update 4524147 was causing this problem (the second time an update broke the Start menu in recent weeks). I checked, and sure enough, 4524147 had been reinstalled automatically overnight. Uninstalling it fixed the Start menu.
2019Oct05: To delay recurrence of the printing problem, I used the Advanced settings on the Windows Update screen to delay updates as long as possible. On most of the PCs, I was able to delay updates for between 30 and 365 days. On one PC, these settings were inexplicably missing. I eventually had to use the Local Group Policy Editor to make the necessary changes.
2019Oct04: I reported this bizarre situation to Microsoft via its Windows 10 Feedback hub. It’s difficult to know whether anyone at Microsoft will actually see this, or take it seriously. I have doubts, which means that this problem seems likely to reappear at some point.
This is in fact the nightmare scenario envisioned by myself and others when it became clear that Windows 10 updates would not be optional. While Microsoft has — grudgingly — made it possible to delay updates, it’s still not possible to avoid them completely, and if you’re one of the unlucky Windows 10 Home users, even that’s not an option.
Questions for Microsoft
Why did an update intended to fix printing problems actually cause those exact problems?
Why are some of the advanced Windows Update settings missing from one of several identically-configured Windows 10 PCs running the same build?
Why are you inflicting this garbage on us? Do you hate us?
WHY DON’T YOU LET US TURN OFF UPDATES? This is the simplest solution, and while I understand that you want Windows 10 installs to be secure (and that means installing fixes for security vulnerabilities), until you can produce updates that don’t cause massive problems, we don’t want them.
Microsoft is finally waking up to what we’ve all been saying since before Windows 10 was released: forcing operating system updates on users is not a good idea. Amusingly, they are presenting their findings and announcing related changes as if these things were previously unknown to the world of computing.
Microsoft refers to the process of installing Windows updates as an ‘experience’, and uses adjectives like ‘great’ when describing what they want the experience to be like for users. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never thought about installing updates as a ‘great experience’. Nightmarish, never-ending, endurable, and dreaded are more familiar ways to describe my update experiences. The word I’d most like to use in connection with updates is ‘uneventful’.
Note: phrases like ‘great update experience’ were no doubt vetted by some Microsoft committee. Microsoft writers are presumably encouraged to use these phrases — and avoid negative terminology — when discussing Windows updates.
Microsoft still seems unable to understand what people actually want to ‘experience’ from a Windows update:
We don’t want updates at all, really. We want software to not be full of security holes in the first place. But that’s a fantasy, and will never happen (sigh).
We want updates to not cause problems. Ever.
Updates should install quickly, and with minimal fuss. Giant downloads, massive storage requirements, lengthy update durations, and high CPU usage are unacceptable.
It should be possible to easily, quickly, and effectively revert updates.
Automatic updates are a nice option, but only if we have full control over when they occur.
Upcoming Windows Update changes
Download and install now option: a new option on the Windows Update page that installs ‘feature updates’, which provide new or improved functionality. Using this option effectively updates Windows 10 to the latest version in terms of features, without installing any bug or security fixes. According to Microsoft, it’s a way to get the latest features without installing anything potentially risky.
Extended ability to pause updates. This further extends your ability to delay installation of updates, although it’s still limited: you can delay an update up to 35 days (seven days at a time, up to five times). This one is important for Windows 10 Home users, because the feature was previously unavailable on that version.
Intelligent active hours. The ‘active hours’ setting, which was added in the Anniversary Update, allows you to specify a window of time during which updates should never occur. This will now adjust itself automatically, based on when it thinks the computer is actually being used. This sounds good, but in practise, it may cause more problems than it solves. We’ll see.
Improved update orchestration. This new feature will detect device usage, and attempt to install updates when utilization is low, such as when there is no user activity.
These are all welcome changes, but I’m hoping Microsoft goes even further. If the Windows 10 update process improves enough, I may even consider installing it again. For now, there are still too many problems, such as Windows Update’s excessive use of disk space.
At least Microsoft is listening to the complaints about update dialogs popping up over important presentations, and worse. And they’re being surprisingly transparent during this current round of Windows improvements. Several recent Windows update problems (like this one in March and the known issues with this April update and this one) were probably the main impetus behind the changes, though.
Last month, after users reported file deletion issues, Microsoft took the Windows 10 October Update offline. Yesterday, the (now fixed) update was again made available. Microsoft has slowed their rollout this time, and for now, you can only get the update by manually checking for updates in Windows Update. If there are no new problems, Microsoft will gradually push the update out to all Windows 10 computers over the coming weeks.
In the month since the October update was pulled, Microsoft did a lot of soul-searching (aka process review), and the results of that work, detailed in a November 13 blog post, make for interesting reading. Here are the highlights:
Microsoft is trying to be more transparent about how it tests new versions of Windows before they are released. This is a good thing.
Adequate testing is difficult because there are so many possible combinations of hardware and software being used on Windows 10.
Base functional testing is the responsibility of the development teams. Presumably dedicated testing staff did this previously.
Data and user feedback are being used to gauge quality.
According to Microsoft, October update issues aside, overall quality and user satisfaction are increasing with each new Windows 10 update.
Employees working on Windows 10 have to ‘eat their own dog food’, meaning that they are required to use Windows 10 themselves.
As many as 15,000 new device drivers are added to Windows each month.
“The first principle of a feature update rollout is to only update devices that our data shows will have a good experience.” I find this wording amusing: in this case a ‘good experience’ means one where you’re less likely to throw yourself off a building after trying to update your O/S.
Update 2018Dec19: “Rollout Status as of December 17, 2018: Windows 10, version 1809, is now fully available for advanced users who manually select “Check for updates” via Windows Update.” See Windows 10 Update History.
As you may be aware, there’s no longer any practical way to avoid installing Windows 10 updates. Once Microsoft pushes them out, they’re going to end up on your computer whether you want them or not. But maybe you trust Microsoft to make changes to your computer while you sleep (for the record, I’m definitely not). On the other hand, when an update ends up causing problems, it makes these forced updates look downright irresponsible.
Microsoft is aware of the problem, and they are looking into it, although it’s not at all clear when it might be resolved. Hopefully Microsoft will either pull the update, or at least delay pushing it out to all Windows 10 computers.
If you’re worried about losing files, I strongly suggest backing up all your documents, images, music, video, and other data files. Which you really should be doing anyway. I back up all my data nightly to an external hard drive, using the freeware Cobian Backup.
Update 2018Oct08: When you shift testing away from professionals and to your user base, quality will suffer. Things are going to slip through. That’s why formal software testing is so important, especially for operating systems and other critical software. Microsoft seems to have made an erroneous assumption: that if you have a (nearly) infinite number of monkeys people using your software, they will find (and reliably reproduce) every bug. In fact, the people doing this unpaid “testing” are mostly power users who are just hoping that their own specific needs will be better served by the latest version. They aren’t testing every scenario, just the same one they tested for the last version. Power users are also much less likely to make the kinds of obvious mistakes that regular folks make, which can lead to surprises even after an update is pushed out to the general public. This situation seems likely to get worse, sadly. The Verge weighs in.
Update 2018Oct16: On October 9, Microsoft made a new (fixed) version of the October update available to users subscribed to the Windows Insider program. Microsoft also seems to understand that the current user-focused testing process is less than ideal: the Windows Insider Feedback Hub now allows users to provide an indication of impact and severity when filing User Initiated Feedback.
One of Windows 10’s most frustrating features is the way it installs updates. Unless you’re using an enterprise version, updates are almost completely out of your control. You can’t prevent them from installing, and there’s very little you can do to control when they install, or when your computer restarts to complate installation.
While developing Windows 10, Microsoft somehow failed to understand that downloading, installing, and rebooting for updates automatically at potentially inconvenient times might be annoying to users.
The good news is that Microsoft is finally going to do something about this. What did it take to get Microsoft to look at the problem? A steady stream of customer complaints, starting immediately after Windows 10 was released.
“We trained a predictive model that can accurately predict when the right time to restart the device is. Meaning, that we will not only check if you are currently using your device before we restart, but we will also try to predict if you had just left the device to grab a cup of coffee and return shortly after.”
It’s too early to know how well this will work in practise, but at least it’s a (small) step in the right direction.
Another big update for Windows 10 is scheduled to start rolling out to all Windows 10 computers on May 8. Microsoft is calling this one the Windows 10 April 2018 Update.
As with all Windows 10 updates, there’s no way to avoid it, and the only way to control when the update lands on your computer is to manually check for updates using Windows Update. Doing that any time after April 30 should show the April update and let you install it.
What’s new in the April 2018 update
Timeline is a new feature that allows you to see what you were doing on your computer on a specific date.
Nearby Sharing provides a new mechanism for quickly and easily sharing documents with nearby users. It uses Bluetooth and WiFi, depending on what’s available.
Focus Assist allows for easier control over Windows features that are potentially distracting, such as sounds, visual notifications and other alerts.
Improvements to Edge include several we’ve seen in other browsers for a while: tab audio muting, form autofill, clutter-free printing, full-screen reading mode, grammar tools, colour/theme improvements, and better compatibility with mobile platforms.
Windows Ink gets a few enhancements with this update, as do Windows Mixed Reality, Windows Hello, Microsoft Photos, Mixed Reality Viewer, Paint 3D, Cortana, Dictation, My People, and the Game Bar.
The once-discarded, then revived Start menu sees some improvement in the way pinning works.
HDR video support in Windows HD Color is expanded, as is support for the Touch Keyboard and Handwriting.
Since the release of Windows 10, Microsoft has received feedback from certain users, to the effect that the O/S doesn’t meet the “demanding needs of mission critical and compute intensive workloads.” It either doesn’t detect, or simply doesn’t use the capabilities of some types of high-performance hardware.
The new version of Windows 10 includes the ReFS filesystem, which is supposed to be much more resilient than the NTFS filesystem used by standard Windows. It also includes support for non-volatile NVDIMM-N memory modules, which provide high-speed access to files. SMB Direct provides a faster file sharing mechanism. There’s also more support for high performance hardware, including server-grade Intel Xeon and AMD Opteron processors, up to four CPUs (regular Windows is limited to two) and memory up to 6TB (regular Windows is limited to 2TB).
High-end system builders, and people running high-performance niche applications may find these features useful, but I suspect that most people won’t be interested, especially as the new version is likely to be rather expensive, as is the related hardware.
There’s no word yet on whether privacy-related instrumentation will be any easier to disable in Windows 10 Pro for Workstations, or whether system administrators will be able to control which updates are installed, or disable auto-update completely.
Rants and musings on topics of interest. Sometimes about Windows, Linux, security and cool software.