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Microsoft surrenders in its Windows Update war with users

Microsoft surrenders in its Windows Update war with users

It’s another sign that the company is changing in fundamental ways under the leadership of Satya Nadella

Most businesses know that a war with the people who buy and use their products is a war they can’t win.

Microsoft has belatedly recognised this with regard to its Windows Update policies. And if you’ve been paying attention to shifts in the corporate culture in Redmond, the company’s surrender to its customers shouldn’t be a surprise.

The long-simmering war has to do with the way that Windows 10 updates itself on PCs — specifically, the twice-a-year significant updates called “feature updates” that add new capabilities to Windows.

For years, you’ve had, for all practical purposes, no choice about whether to update; your PC installed all updates automatically whether you liked it or not. Technically, you could get around this, but it wasn’t an option most users would choose; more on that in a bit.

Windows users have not been pleased about this, and with good reason. Far too often, features updates have been released before they were ready for prime time, sometimes even causing damage to PCs and files.

For example, the last one, the Windows 10 October 2018 Update, deleted files without letting users know, and those files were lost forever.

Then there was the Windows 10 April 2018 Update fiasco, when people complained that it crashed their computers and displayed the notorious blue screen of death.

Not many people did what was necessary to stop those automatic updates from being installed, because it’s not particularly easy, and the results aren’t ideal. I’ve written about a variety of tricky ways you can get around the automatic updates.

But they involve doing things like turning off the Windows Update service using Control Panel, which means you won’t get any updates, including important security updates. So you’d only want to use those workarounds as a last resort.

People complained, long and loudly. Microsoft ignored them. They complained some more and were still ignored. But now, with the upcoming Windows 10 May 2019 update, Microsoft has cried uncle. Late in the update’s testing phase, the company announced that it is going to give people control over whether to install feature updates.

With the upcoming release, Windows won’t automatically install a feature update when it becomes available. Instead, Windows will notify you that it’s available by showing a “Download and install now” message and link in the Windows Update Settings pane. If you don’t want to install it, you can ignore the message.

If you want to install it, click the link and follow the instructions. And if you want to wait a while — a few days, a few weeks, a few months — until you can make sure that the update isn’t problematic, you can go ahead and do that. The control, finally, is in your hands.

Well, not completely. There is a caveat. When the version of Windows 10 you’re running reaches “end of service" and Microsoft no longer supports it or issues security updates for it, you’ll have to install the latest feature update.

Usually, that’s 18 months after your current Windows version’s release. This makes plenty of sense, and it’s completely analogous to similar issues in public health. Just as it’s vital that people get vaccinations against diseases to protect everyone’s health by ensuring herd immunity, PCs should be protected against malware.

If there are lots of unprotected PCs around, they can be used to breed malware or be turned into malicious bots and attack other people’s PCs.

Note that you’ll still have to install the small patches Microsoft issues every month. That’s because they are often security updates, and everyone should have them. However, Microsoft has agreed to give you some control over when they’re installed. You’ll be able to delay them for up to 35 days.

Why the change after so many years of Microsoft’s refusal to let people decide for themselves whether to install feature updates? It’s because Microsoft is a different company under Satya Nadella than it was under Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer.

It has shed its arrogance and is far more open to new ways of doing business and dealing with its customers. A few months ago, for example, it pulled the plug on its 25-year browser strategy and said it would replace Edge’s web rendering engine with one developed by the Chromium open-source project — a project originally launched by Google.

Microsoft has also welcomed working with other open-source software, for example having Linux run the popular SQL Server database. And it killed off Windows Phone, a massive money pit, rather than continuing to use Windows as a battering ram to force people to use the mobile operating system.

Listening to customers and giving them control over updating Windows isn’t just good for Windows users. It’s good for business as well. It will likely lead to increased customer loyalty. Under Nadella’s new openness, Microsoft has thrived.

In late April, it became the third U.S. company to have a market cap of more than $1 trillion. So expect to see more moves like this in the future.

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