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Microsoft to upgrade Windows' update system at end of July

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July 8, 2008

Late yesterday, Microsoft said it will upgrade Windows' update system at the end of July, a warning message that comes almost a year after the company issued a similar upgrade without informing its users. In September of 2007, reports of Microsoft conducting a stealth update of its Windows Update service angered users and put the software giant on the defensive with the media.

At that time, Microsoft's response was that it had engaged in the practice before, and the client-side software needed to be updated in order to guarantee future receipt of any security patches when they are made available.

Michelle Haven, product manager with the Windows Update Group said "beginning at the end of July 2008 and continuing over the next few months, we'll be rolling out an infrastructure update to the Windows Update agent."

Haven added that the update, which would affect both Microsoft's back-end update infrastructure as well as the client-side software necessary to use the Windows Update (WU) directly or access it through a Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) server.

Additionally, Haven said users would see few (if any) visible changes in the WU software or process, but that scanning performance would improve. "We've invested heavily in reducing the amount of time it takes the Windows Update agent to scan to see if new updates are available," she said.

"We've seen some instances of the scan times on some machines decreasing almost 20 percent," she said.

The only setting that won't result in the WU client software being updated, Haven added, is the "off" option, which is labeled "Turn off Automatic Updates" in Windows XP and "Never check for updates" in Windows Vista.

As could be expected, some users weren't happy, even with this advance notice. "It is unfortunate you didn't take the opportunity of XP SP3/Vista SP1 to fix this obviously incorrect behavior and regain users' trust, especially after the contraversy this caused back in September," said a user identified only as "thingy" in a comment to Haven's post. "As it is, you are still ignoring an explicit user instruction to 'don't download or install things on my machine without my permission'."

In 2007, and after the initial reports of WU's stealth updating, Microsoft acknowledged it could have done a better job informing users. (!)

"The point of this explanation," said Nate Clinton, a WU program manager in September of last year, "is not to suggest that we were as transparent as we could have been. Much to the contrary, people have told us that we should have been clearer on how Windows Update behaves when it updates itself.

Enterprises that rely on WSUS servers to get patches and hotfixes to users will also be affected by the WU software update, noted another Microsoft manager.

Haven's pre-release announcement was in stark contrast to last year, when users were angered after discovering that Microsoft had updated files related to the Windows Update client even when they had disabled the operating systems' automatic installation option.

"To avoid a false sense of security, the Windows Update client automatically checks for and installs any available infrastructure updates anytime a system uses the Windows Update service, independent of the settings for how it handles updates," said Haven.

"We are now looking at the best way to clarify WU's behavior to customers so that they can more clearly understand how WU works," she added.

"Overall, WSUS-managed end-users who navigate to WU to perform an interactive sync will receive an updated version of WUA as this new agent is rolled out over the next few months," said Marc Shepard, a program manager with the WSUS group.

He added "machines whose end-users don't explicitly navigate to WUA to perform an interactive scan will continue to use the existing version of WUA. This will result in a mixture of WUA versions in most corporate environments."

Shepard was also quick to point out that the mix shouldn't matter, since the new version of WGA, the WU client software, is backwards compatible, and will continue to connect with WSUS servers independently of what the settings are.

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Source: Microsoft.

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