Microsoft Surface tablet

Surface Firmware Update Fracas

Microsoft's policy of continually updating Surface is a good one . . . until it isn't

Microsoft's Surface devices are an interesting strategic foray for a traditional software firm that now stakes a claim to "devices and services." But after delivering a decidedly improved second generation of Surface tablets to customers this past fall, the products over the past 30 days have succumbed to a problem that's done a lot to undermine customer trust.

Related: Surface Pro 2 Removed December Update Rolling Back Out

If you're still not up on Microsoft's new Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 products, please be sure to check out my "Microsoft Surface 2: The Complete Guide." Long story short, Surface 2 is a major advance over the lackluster Surface RT, although I still have questions about the viability the Windows RT OS it runs. And Surface Pro 2 is an evolutionary update over the excellent original Pro unit, one that didn't require as much improvement.

Compared with other PCs, the Surface devices offer some key advantages. For example, they're free of the software dreck—"crapware"—that other hardware makers bundle with their PCs, disrupting the performance and reliability of those systems in a mad dash to increase their razor-thin profit margins.

But the big deal with Surface, I think, is that Microsoft treats these machines like it does its cloud-based services and modern software products like Office 2013 and Windows 8.1. That is, the Surface devices aren't monolithic products that are released and then never or rarely updated. Instead, Microsoft is continually improving Surface by delivering regular, monthly firmware updates. It's not just "devices and services." This is servicing a device like a service.

Now, I can feel some of you flinching as you read that. And that's likely because the practice of continuous updating runs contrary to the needs and wants of IT, which has traditionally locked down software so that only those updates they approve are ever delivered to end users.

Leaving aside the debate about the rationale for such behavior, let's just agree that the original purpose of this kind of policy is to ensure reliability. And unfortunately, for Microsoft, its desire to keep customers continually up-to-date has sometimes bumped up hard against those IT-mandated policies. More to the point, when a product—software, service or, in this case, a device's firmware—is being updated regularly, the chances of something going wrong are that much more likely.

Which brings us to the December 2013 set of Surface firmware updates, which, like previous updates, were delivered on that month's Patch Tuesday. Unfortunately, the Surface Pro 2 firmware update that month was problematic and impacted a number of customer devices in negative ways. The most common report was dramatically lower battery life. So a week later, Microsoft pulled the Surface Pro 2 firmware update, protecting those users who had not yet installed it.

The problem is that pulling the update didn't help those who had. And while I was initially assured that Microsoft would re-release the firmware update as soon as possible, December dragged into January and then the truly unexpected occurred. January's Patch Tuesday came and went without a new version of that firmware update.

Related: Original Surface Pro Firmware Update Released, Surface Pro 2 Battery Fix Still Pending

Nobody doubts that Microsoft has a rigorous process for approving firmware updates (and other updates). But what it doesn't have is a rigorous process for communicating what it's doing for Surface customers. And so as this week dawned, we started to see isolated reports from Surface Pro 2 users online who had gotten updates from Microsoft that seemed to fix some of the issues. Some reported that they had actually received the firmware update. Many have thus far seen nothing. Microsoft's Surface blog remains silent. So I queried Microsoft about this and received the following statement:

"This weekend we released an update that addresses the unexpected wake and battery drain behavior experienced by a small number of Surface Pro 2 customers who installed the December Windows Update. This should have no impact on customers who had not received the December update. We are working hard to deliver the rest of the December update to those customers who had not received it prior to it being removed from distribution." The firm also noted that it had responded to customers in its support forums.

This reminds me of an issue from long ago. Back in the Windows Vista timeframe, I believe, I was conversing with someone from the Windows team about how many Microsoft business customers waited until the first service pack before deploying a new version of Windows or other major software release. How, I was asked, could Microsoft get customers to upgrade more quickly, and not wait until they "got it right" with SP1? My response was that Microsoft needed to deliver reliable software releases with the initial RTM release and do so consistently over many versions, and that such a change wouldn't happen overnight. Trust, I said, doesn't happen overnight.

Microsoft's ultimate response to this issue is perhaps disheartening: The firm only released one Windows 7 service pack and then stopped making service packs for most of its new product versions. Problem solved.

I guess we can learn various lessons from these events. But while trust does take a long time to build, it only takes one disaster like this to trigger fear, questions, and distrust. Microsoft's policy of continually updating Surface is a good one, but only if it's done consistently and reliably. And when it isn't, Microsoft needs to be a bit more upfront about what's happening, and what that action is doing—if anything—to help users who were impacted by the problem.

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