Windows 8's Automatic Update will now always give you time to save and won't interrupt your gaming/movies

It's 3 a.m.; do you know what your PC is doing?  Well, if it's a Windows 7 machine, it may be in the process of automatically restarting.  Microsoft pushes out security updates the second Tuesday of each month, but other critical updates can land at off times.  For those who forgot to save their work the evening before, they are often in for the rude surprise.

I. Windows Update Automatic Mode -- Boon to Security, Bane to an Unlucky Few

In the latest Building Windows blog, Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) engineer Farzana Rahman, writing with Windows Division President Steven Sinofsky, explains how Microsoft hopes to eliminate this problem in the upcoming Windows 8 release.

Automatic updates are a very important thing as they allow Microsoft to deliver important trusted content like security patches that a user might never go out and install on their own.  With over a billion Windows PCs in the wild, Microsoft is under an immense amount of security risk, risk that is mitigated by the Automatic Update program.

Ms. Rahman shares 89.3 percent of Windows users opt to use automatic update.  She comments, "That’s 90% of the total user base telling us to automatically install updates without showing any notifications, or asking for confirmation."

That might not be entirely accurate -- a lot of users simply don't understand what exactly auto update is and what the ramifications of turning it on and off are.  But the important message is that a lot of people have Automatic Update turned on -- whether or not they know it.  

The benefit is seen in Microsoft's metrics for one important update, which showed -- despite internet connection variability -- 85 percent of users downloading and installing the update within three days.  A three-day turnaround means that Microsoft can quickly target malware threats and be guaranteed that its actions will take effect across a large amount of its installs.

Install v. days for critical patch
Install rate v. days for a critical patch. [Image Source: Microsoft]

Interestingly, Microsoft indicates that while 31 percent of updates in computers with Windows Automatic Update turned on are installed interactively, the majority of users instead rely on shutdowns.  

Microsoft says the "best case" scenario occurs in the 39 percent of updates that install alongside user shutdowns. Microsoft has tried to squeeze its updates in this Windows. Ms. Rahman writes, "This is the least disruptive experience for users, and so we do want to “hitch a ride” whenever we can on user-initiated shutdowns instead of inconveniencing users with a separate restart."

II. Toning Down the Auto Reboots

However, 30 percent find their computers being restarted by Windows Update.  This is where most the "problem updates" in terms of user disruption lie.  Users who didn't expect the overnight shutdown are often distraught to find their work has been lost in apps that don't auto-save.

The dreaded restart prompt

To remedy this Microsoft is making some important changes to Windows Update Automatic (WU Auto) with Windows 8.

Time to Save Your Work
  1. WU Auto will now only restart your locked machine after you log in, preventing restarts on locked machines overnight
  2. WU Auto will now give you a big message on login informing you that you have 15 minutes to save your work.
  3. If programs are running (active use) and you're logged in when the restart order rolls in, you will be given the same message.
Save your stuff...

No Interruption to Media
If you're:
  1. In presentation mode
  2. Watching a fullscreen movie
  3. Playing a game
Your machine won't attempt the restart until you're done.  

An important issue not really explained here is whether third-party movie players (in fullscreen mode) are supported, and similarly whether third-party slide presentation software (like Open Office Impress) will be caught by this check.

Less Updates and New Login Warnings

Windows Update login screen
  1. The auto restart is now changed to once a month, barring critical security updates.  Important stability updates and their ilk will no longer force restarts at other times of the month.
  2. The update day, as always is the second Tuesday of the month and the time is 3 a.m. in the user's selected time zone.
  3. For users with WU Auto enabled, you'll now be informed by a message at the bottom right corner of the login screen how many days remain until the big shutdown and restart day.
  4. These users will see a message that reads "Your PC will restart in [X] days to finish installing security updates."
  5. For users with WU Auto disabled, you'll get similar messages, instead informing you about whether you need to download or install important updates.  For these users -- who represent roughly 5.82 percent of the total Windows 7 install base, a message "Important updates are ready to be installed." will display.
    Important updates
  6. Clicking the power button beneath the message for either WU Auto on or off, allows the user to manually choose "Update and shut down" or "Update and restart".
  7. Lastly IT administrators who disable WU Auto for their enterprise users, will now have their users presented with a "Your PC needs to restart to finish installing security updates." message on the login screen.  The users are offered equivalent options to the home users via a power button.
    Important updates
In Win. 7's implementation of Windows Update, you can actually turn off automatic restarts by:
  1. Clicking the Windows button
  2. Typing "regedit" in the search bar
  3. Navigating to "HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Policies\Microsoft\Windows\WindowsUpdate\AU"
  4. Right clicking
  5. Selecting to creat a new 32-bit DWORD value named "NoAutoRebootWithLoggedOnUsers"
  6. Set the new variable to 1.
However, Windows Update's automatic restarts are a natural and (relatively) healthy process that prevents user procrastination from crippling the security of the Windows platform.  With its changes, Microsoft appears to be on the right track to making WU's "Automatic" less destructive when it comes to forced restarts.

To the end user that means less headaches and more peace of mind.

III. What About the Third Parties?

Ms. Rahman also tossed in an interesting note in the conclusion, stating that some customers have expressed interest in programs (e.g. games, etc.) having the chance to send users patches via Windows Update.  She comments that this isn't feasible because of the risk of sacrificing the trust of WU if a destructive update (be it unintentional or intentional) slipped through.

She writes:

[U]sers have also told us that they trust the quality of updates distributed by WU and hence are comfortable with choosing to automatically update their systems. We would not want to do anything that might reduce trust in the system by encouraging people to take on this management task manually and exposing their PCs to potential vulnerabilities for even short times.

Through WU and the “Microsoft Update” option (opt-in) we also offer updates for Microsoft products and for 3rd-party device drivers, with a common set of setup tools for each. All of these updates are carefully screened, and must adhere to the Windows conventions for updates regarding rollback and recovery, and overall system impact.

This seems like a smart line of thinking.  Some updates -- like a recent AntiVir Guard update -- have had unintended destructive effects on Windows machines.  The last thing Microsoft needs -- given the already precarious position of being the world's biggest OS maker and hence the world's biggest target -- is to be blamed for the issues caused by negligent third-parties, which would be the likely scenario if Windows Update delivered the offending patch.

On the other hand, she points out that Microsoft's upcoming Windows Store -- which will deliver Metro styled apps in Windows 8, similar to App Store in OS X -- will offer developers that ability to send out automatic updates.  The key here, appears to be that Microsoft is happy to provide developers with a sound update framework; they just want to keep it separated from the base operating system updates for reputation and trust purposes.

Windows 8 pops up in 2012 and will be the first Windows operating system refined for multi-touch tablets.  Thus far the beta program has been a big success, like its Windows 7 predecessor.

Source: Microsoft

"It looks like the iPhone 4 might be their Vista, and I'm okay with that." -- Microsoft COO Kevin Turner

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