This past weekend, Microsoft removed the download links to several Patch Tuesday-based software updates after customers complained of frequent problems, in some cases including non-booting PCs and Blue Screens. The firm is recommending that users uninstall the offending updates and is urging them in some cases to uninstall those patches. This isn't just unprecedented, folks, it's catastrophic. And it casts a pall over Microsoft's rapid release strategy.
You may recall that I've been worried about this very problem, though even I didn't imagine that Microsoft would somehow screw up so many updates in a single month. (See, I'm not that negative.) But in a world in which IT departments were already leery about just trusting the updates that Microsoft released each month, I was curious what would happen when the firm started updating its core products even more rapidly. All it would take, I conjectured, was a single bad month.
Unfortunately, August 2014 is that month.
In a support document on its web site, Microsoft explains that it has removed the download links for four Patch Tuesday updates this month so that it can investigate numerous issues and then fix them. The issues range from minor (fonts that don't render correctly) to serious (systems may crash with a 0x50 Stop error message, aka a Blue Screen), and the firm offers various remedial actions. And for the most serious—that Blue Screen—Microsoft recommends uninstalling the update.
"Microsoft is investigating behavior associated with the installation of this update, and will update this bulletin when more information becomes available," the document notes. "Microsoft recommends that customers uninstall this update."
I assume everyone here can figure out how to back out of these updates, and of course many corporate environments have probably held off on the installs anyway. What I'm a bit more concerned with is why Microsoft can't push out reliable updates on a set schedule. What does this say about its promise to pursue a rapid release strategy?
Sure, mistakes are made. And this isn't the first time Microsoft has asked customers to uninstall a bad Patch Tuesday update, of course. But with more and more products tying themselves to the Patch Tuesday bandwagon, it's likely that we're going to see the number of regular patches and Microsoft releases go up dramatically, because these updates aren't just about security and functional fixes, they're going to provide new functionality too.
Indeed, this month's set of patches included one update, "August 2014 update rollup for Windows RT 8.1, Windows 8.1, and Windows Server 2012 R2," which was originally going to be a major release called Update 2. Microsoft pared down Update 2 over the past several months and then ultimately decided that what was left no longer deserved that name. So it became an update rollup and was pushed out with no fanfare. Until, of course, it started causing problems, including that Blue Screen issue.
My theory is that with Update 2 specifically, Microsoft simply made too many changes in too short a period of time, and that the resulting release was simply of poor quality. But then that's what IT has always feared, and this month's problems have simply justified those fears. To date, Microsoft has not shown that it can be trusted to update software reliably on a faster schedule.
This is a big problem, whether you've bought into Microsoft's strategy or not. That's because Microsoft is on this schedule with or without you. And one of the tenets of rapid release is that the baselines for serviceability move forward more quickly too. In the old days, that was some level of service pack. Today, for example, the baseline for Windows 7 serviceability is Windows 7 plus Service Pack 1.
But flash forward to Windows 8.1 and the baseline for that OS is now Update 1. That is, in order to receive future updates, you have to have Update 1 installed. But that release first shipped in April, just four months ago. And I have to think that as things get ramped up, a four month/one quarter window is just about exactly what Microsoft is looking for when it comes to simplifying the delivery of updates. You won't be able to put off updates for as long as you used to.
(The firm's recent decision to more aggressively retire older Internet Explorer versions is of course tied in part to this same need: By simplifying the possible range of configurations that can be serviced, serviceability becomes simpler and, hopefully, less error-prone.)
Whatever the reasons for this month's Patch Tuesday debacle, it's clear that these mistakes will trigger another round of distrust from Microsoft's core audience. And that's too bad, given the current climate: Microsoft has to be firing on all cylinders to succeed in this new world and it really needs its customer base to move along with it. These types of problems are a step back, and a reminder that the firm's still-broadly-deployed traditional software products simply don't respond well to cloud-service-style updating. I wonder if they ever will.