Rethinking Windows Updates

Rethinking Windows Updates

Last night, I spoke with someone at Microsoft about the coming changes to Microsoft lifecycle support. She confirmed the reasons stated in my earlier blog and also explained how the new policy affects service packs.

Starting June 1, Microsoft will support an existing service pack for at least 12 months following the release of the newer one, so as to allow companies time for testing the update. In the case of major updates, like the upcoming Windows XP Service Pack 2, support will stretch out for 24 months.

I could see the reasoning, but had to ask why wait so long between service packs. Her response: That customers don't want frequent updates and for some one a year is the limit. OK, I'm thinking: What customers?

As explained in my report, “Windows Fragmentation: The Problem with Windows XP Evangelism and How to Fix It,” customers are holding onto software longer–one good reason for Microsoft to extend lifecycle support, incidentally. My report, “Software Assurance: Microsoft's Troubled Switch to Contractual Licensing,” reveals how many business customers buy new computers and replace the preinstalled software with older versions. If business customers aren't going to use the newest stuff anyway, why not make updates available more frequently?

Consider this: Service Pack 2 is looking to release about two years after its predecessor. That kind of long release cycle puts a tremendous burden on Microsoft's PC partners selling computers to the consumer market and those people buying the computers. After last night's Spring concert at my daughter's school, a buddy complained about setting up a new PC for a friend and then having to download more than 50 updates.

Considering the potential security risk unpatched consumer PCs pose to everyone else connected to the Internet, I would think Microsoft would have every good reason to provide PC manufacturers with “point releases” every few months that consolidate patches. Apple does that today with Mac OS X. The newest point release–right now 10.3.4–goes on new computers, minimizing the amount of downloads customers must make out of the box.

JupiterResearch projects that by the end of this year, about one-third of U.S. households will have broadband. The larger number with dial-up connections are in a sticky spot–downloading massive updates for their new PCs over slow connections. If consumers choose not to download, or simply don't see the need, their unpatched computers are potentially more vulnerable to viruses, worms or Trojan horses.

Microsoft executives might counter and say that Service Pack 2 will fix that problem. But what about three months later, when the company has issued new updates? I believe that if Microsoft needs to continue issuing updates to make Windows safe or compatible, the company has an obligation to bear the burden of delivering those updates to customers. If AOL can blanket the planet in promotional CDs for its online service, why can't Microsoft, with more than $50 billion in the bank, do the same with update discs for new computers? (Some answers here and here.)

Microsoft could provide direct PC manufacturers like Dell point releases that could go immediately onto new PCs. Microsoft could provide update CDs to retailers selling PCs for indirect manufacturers like HP or Sony. As for the business market, companies downgrading to an older Windows version won't care much what update is on the PC. For those that do, Microsoft and its PC partners could offer the choice of Windows with the most recent service pack or post-service pack point release.

Some Microsoft folks might argue that releasing point upgrades would create versioning confusion or increase technical support calls. But, I don't see it that way. Right now, customers have no easy way of determining what version of Windows they have because Microsoft gives no obvious cue and different customers may have installed different levels of updates.

I'd like to see Microsoft do away with service packs altogether. At the least, in addition to Windows Update, Microsoft should provide its business customers and OEM and retail partners update CDs every quarter. I believe new Windows versions should replace service packs. There is precedent when looking at the rapid release cycle for Windows XP Tablet PC and Windows Media editions.

That might seem like a mechanism for increasing the amount of Windows fragmentation–meaning even more versions in use. But true innovation, meaning truly compelling products, would help offset increased fragmentation. If Apple can release four versions of Mac OS X in three years, why can't Microsoft, with the resources of 55,000-plus employees, do better? And in doing better deliver compelling must-have products.

Ultimately, this may be the challenge: Creating products so compelling customers rush out to get the latest versions, and in the process move to the most-secure software sold by Microsoft. I don't know a Mac user iPod owner that has either purchased an iPod mini or plans to get one. If Microsoft can meet that standard of compelling, whether because of must-have innovation, marketing or both, people will pay to move to the latest, most-secure software.  [Microsoft Monitor]

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