10 hurdles to Windows 10 adoption

Here's what Microsoft needs to do before the so-called last version of Windows is truly ready for prime time

10 hurdles to Windows 10 adoption
Credit: B4bees via Flickr
10 hurdles to Windows 10 adoption

It’s been six months since Windows 10 hit the rails, and 200 million people (or so, depending on how you count) have taken the plunge and now run the “last” version of Windows.

There’s no question Windows 10 is the future for Windows users. But there’s room for doubt among those who are holding out for something a bit better than the Windows 10 we have now.

There are plenty of good reasons to stick with Windows 7, if it works for you and you aren’t enthralled with the idea of learning a new operating system. But the push to Windows 10 has taken on a new urgency from Microsoft without as much urgency in rounding out the feature set most die-hard Windows users want from Windows 10.

Here’s a look at what Microsoft should do to make Windows 10 more palatable to those who are still sitting on the fence. Consider it a checklist of sorts: Once Microsoft commits to addressing these concerns, you’ll know Windows 10 is finally legit. If Windows 10 is in your future, it’s the least you should expect from the world’s largest software company.

Tell us what changes are being made to Windows
Tell us what changes are being made to Windows

For years we’ve been able to rely on (or at least refer to) Microsoft’s Knowledge Base for a description of the changes made to Windows. With the advent of Windows 10, the flow of information about changes to our systems has gone from full to middling to nonexistent.

This screenshot of Win10 build 1511 Cumulative Update 8, KB 3124262, says it all: A huge bunch of bug fixes, security patches, and usability changes, with more than 3,500 changed files (here’s the list), are boiled down to exactly one line:

"This update offers improved functionality for Windows 10 Version 1511."

On the bright side, we still have minimal descriptions for Windows 10 updates that involved Security Bulletins, as they point to information primarily published for other versions of Windows. But for Windows 10 patches unrelated to Windows 7 or 8.1 security, we get nothing.

I keep hoping that admins at large sites will twist Microsoft’s arm and get this information released to the unwashed masses. So far, no luck.

Give us a fighting chance to block specific patches
Give us a fighting chance to block specific patches

So far we’ve been lucky. Although each of the Windows 10 forced updates have sporadic reports of installation failures and strange side effects (missing apps, frozen features, throwing various errors), we haven’t yet seen a forced update meltdown that’s on a par with the big Windows Automatic Update meltdowns over the years.

We have, however, seen bad patches that prove annoying, particularly when uninstalling the bad patch doesn’t get rid of the problem. Why? Every time you reboot, the patch or bad driver comes back. We saw that happen last month with a crop of Office patches that threw Visual Basic and VBA errors, and with the botched Surface 3 and Surface Pro 3 firmware patches.

Yes, Microsoft has come up with a makeshift approach to blocking patches known as KB 3073930, but the wushowhide utility, as I’ve explained, works only after you’ve already installed a bad patch, and it stops working if Microsoft re-releases a patch with the same KB number.

Windows 10 PCs connected to a corporate update server can bypass forced updates, as has always been the case. The “Windows Update for Business” approach gives admins a few new twists. But without detailed patch documentation, that flexibility is a loaded patch gun, and those without an update server have to resort to arcane kludges to trap patches.

If Microsoft wants to force patching, so be it. But please, Microsoft, give knowledgeable Windows customers a chance to delay specific patches for a week or two, so we can protect our systems from unanticipated mayhem.

Split security, non-security, and optional updates
Split security, non-security, and optional updates

Since the birth of Windows Update two decades ago, Windows customers have had the option to accept or decline optional updates. Microsoft used its optional updating track to release new drivers, offer features that many don’t want (such as Silverlight, .Net Framework), and distribute software in a way that’s easy to turn down.

In January 2016, Microsoft offered six optional updates for Windows 7 and 8.1. But there weren’t any optional updates for Windows 10 -- none at all. Microsoft has eliminated optional updates entirely; there’s no mechanism for handling them in Windows 10, nothing in Windows Update to check or uncheck, to show if you want a particular optional update.

It’s another example of Microsoft’s forced-updating one-size-fits-all mentality. If Microsoft wants you to install Silverlight, you’re gonna get Silverlight.

Moreover, the Win10 cumulative updates that include Security Bulletins -- I’m looking at you, KB 3124263 -- may well contain patches that have nothing to do with the referenced Security Bulletins. We don’t know, and Microsoft isn’t saying.

Perhaps you trust Microsoft implicitly, but from where I sit, the inability to discern between a zero-day fault in Edge and currency support for the Azerbaijani Manat gives me the creeps. As long as all of the Windows 10 patches are lumped together in cumulative updates -- whether they’re security-related or Microsoft pushing more stuff onto our machines -- we don’t stand a chance of choosing what’s best for us.

Show us how Windows Update for Business actually works
Show us how Windows Update for Business actually works

Microsoft has written reams of documentation about Windows Update for Business and the associated Current Branch for Business. The authoritative discussion at this point is in a TechNet article released in November. That article explains, in detail, how much time WUB customers will have to defer updates and upgrades to their systems.

In Microsoft parlance, an “upgrade” is a major step, as from Win10 build 10240 to version 1511; an “update” includes, per the TechNet article: “General OS updates, typically released the second Tuesday of each month. These include Security, Critical, and Driver updates.”

It's all well and good in theory, but in practice it’s another story altogether.

So far, in Windows 10’s six months of existence, we’ve seen one “upgrade” -- from build 10240 to version 1511 -- a whole bunch of Cumulative Updates (eight of them in the past 2.5 months for version 1511 ), loads of “dynamic updates” such as KB 3124261 (which is billed as a “Compatibility update for upgrading to Windows 10 Version 1511”), and an occasional plain-old “update” such as KB 3122962 (described as an “OOBE update”).

To date, we haven’t seen how WUB handles an “upgrade” -- WUB wasn’t operational for the upgrade from build 10240 to version 1511. We’ve seen plenty of cumulative updates, but none of them are sorted out as security updates, drivers, or OS Update updates (per the screenshot). All we’ve had are jumbled-together cumulative updates and compatibility updates, which don’t count for much if you’re already running Win10.

Thus, in a very real sense, Windows Update for Business has never been used in a real-world environment. Admins can hold back on the potpourri of any given cumulative update but don’t have any options for, say, separating out and deploying critical security updates, while holding off on Azerbaijani Manat–caliber patches. Unless Microsoft starts separating the patched wheat from the chaff, we may never see if WUB can truly protect from botched minor patches, while still protecting us from bad security holes.

It’s not just admins. People who manage updates on their own Windows 10 Pro installations using the Group Policy Editor (Computer Configuration > Administrative Templates > Windows Components > Windows Update, see Hammoudi Samir’s MSDN article) don’t have any real-world experience, either.

Make a privacy on-off switch that really works
Make a privacy on-off switch that really works

Windows users everywhere -- except, possibly, Microsoft’s biggest fanboys -- are concerned about Windows 10’s increased proclivity to snoop. I’m not saying that Microsoft’s approach to snooping is any more cavalier than, say, Google’s or Facebook’s. But I think we should hold Microsoft to a higher standard. So here’s my challenge to Microsoft:

  • Tell us exactly what you’re storing in your databases
  • Give us an easy way, in Windows, to opt out of the data collection
  • Give us an easy way to examine what data you have and contest any that’s objectionable

Sooner or later, I hope those three points become obligatory for every organization that stores personally identifiable information about anyone, anywhere. The United States has already instituted similar constraints on credit reporting agencies. Europe seems to be headed in the right direction. Microsoft could take a giant step in the right direction by leading the charge.

But if we can’t get full disclosure, at least we can do better than the 100-plus snooping settings scattered throughout Windows 10 and related Microsoft sites.

Windows 10 already has a 13-page collection of Privacy settings in the Windows Settings app, but they don’t cover all of the stuff that’s being snooped. Chris Hoffman has an excellent overview of the readily accessible settings in a How to Geek post. But even Chris gave up on “a variety of Microsoft services: Cortana, Bing, Outlook.com, OneDrive, Groove Music, MSN, and Xbox.” The settings for Cortana, in particular, are changing all the time -- and many of those privacy settings aren’t in the Windows Settings Privacy applet.

The snooping isn’t all bad, of course: Cortana needs to scan your email if you want it to look for meetings, for example, and Windows Map would have a hard time navigating without your current location. The challenge to Microsoft is to come clean on what’s stored, and make it easier for us to control the massive heaps of personal data that make their way onto Microsoft’s servers.

Fix the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book
Fix the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book

For years, we’ve grown accustomed to the refrain that Windows stability suffers because drivers don’t work right. The problem is compounded, so the story goes, because Microsoft has to make Windows work with so many different kinds of hardware.

The recent round of problems, especially with Surface Pro 3, Surface Pro 4, and Surface Book, show exactly how questionable that argument has been. Microsoft, working with its own built-from-scratch hardware, has had no end of problems getting Windows to work with Microsoft’s own hardware.

Surface Pro 3 underwent 20 firmware patches in 16 months -- an enormous burden for people who bought Surface Pro 3s, because each new firmware patch fixed some features and broke others. The latest Surface Pro 3 firmware update, on Jan. 19, 2016, caused blue screens, broke Wi-Fi support, and failed to address a long-standing problem with battery drainage.

The Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book have now gone through six firmware updates in three months, which may be a record for a Windows machine.

Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book problems were so bad that Microsoft guru Paul Thurrott called the lot of them Surfacegate. Thurrott’s now convinced that firmware update six will make some things better, but even then “there’s something flaky going on.”

One litmus test for trusting Windows 10 may be when Microsoft can get it to work consistently on its own hardware.

Finish OneDrive
Finish OneDrive

Microsoft has botched OneDrive, and it may take years for the stink to go away.

In Windows 8 and earlier, OneDrive was a moderately useful online storage system, with plenty of shortcomings, but at least it integrated nicely into Windows. OneDrive for Business was a completely different program that had exactly nothing in common with OneDrive, other than the name, but at least it worked.

Windows 8.1 introduced a feature called placeholders that, like competitor Dropbox, gave you the impression that all of your OneDrive files were stored on your machine, when in fact they had to be downloaded before you could use them. Although there were additional limitations, the Win 8.1 OneDrive gave you all the advantages of cloud storage without swallowing enormous swaths of storage on your local hard drive.

In Windows 10, we don’t have the Windows 8.1 form of OneDrive -- there are no placeholders -- and the version of OneDrive that we have is buggy, bloated, and prone to freezes and crashes. OneDrive for Business still doesn’t work with OneDrive proper. It’s a mess.

At least we have Dropbox ... and Box ... and a dozen other alternatives.

If you want to use OneDrive, stick with Windows 8.1 until Microsoft clears up its OneDrive mess.

Finish Microsoft Edge
Finish Microsoft Edge

The current state of Microsoft Edge has me wondering if anybody will be able to develop “Universal” Windows program in any reasonable amount of time.

The first leaks about Edge “Project Spartan” appeared more than a year ago. At the time, Microsoft had clearly been working on the new browser for many months. Why has it taken so long to get a browser to work inside Microsoft’s vaunted Universal Windows Platform? Is the project team overworked, overchallenged -- or is WinRT simply not up to the job?

Right now the Edge browser clearly isn’t anywhere close to being usable. We’ve seen beta builds that actually support a multilevel Back button -- a feature that’s been in every browser since Netscape. We’ve been promised a version of Edge that’ll run Chrome extensions. We hear that Edge is fast, sleek, and fun -- and Microsoft’s actually delivered a stunted, buggy, stubbed-out placeholder.

Fortunately, both Chrome and Firefox work well on Windows 10, so the lack of Edge isn’t a debilitating setback. However, it’s a worrying reflection of what might be in store with other Windows Store apps.

Stop pushing
Stop pushing

Microsoft’s Get Windows 10 program -- the one that put warnings like this one on Windows 7 and 8.1 PCs -- has done more to erode confidence and trust in Microsoft than anything since the Scroogled campaign. (Yes, Microsoft is Scroogling now.)

Whoever decided that the best way to get Win7 and 8.1 customers to “love” Windows 10 involved pushing malware onto their Win7 and 8.1 machines should be taken to task. So far, we’ve seen:

  • 3GB to 6GB of unwanted software surreptitiously installed in hidden folders, even on machines where the owner has said they don’t want Windows 10
  • A hidden GWX subsystem installed and started every time Windows boots, with hooks to reinstall and update itself without any authorization from the user
  • Nag notifications, like the one shown, that are designed to confuse and bewilder Windows customers
  • A bogus campaign, starting last April, to “reserve” bits for an online upgrade, and repeated bogus notifications that “Your upgrade to Windows 10 is ready,” which lock down legitimate use of Windows Update
  • "Accidental" automatic launching of the upgrade program

The more Microsoft pushes, the more it’s going to alienate experienced Windows users and novices alike. As a friend of mine said, “If Windows 10 is so great, why are they pushing it so hard?”

Tell us what happens next
Credit: KDS4444 via Wikimedia
Tell us what happens next

I’m a member of the TANSTAAFL club, too. I don’t believe for a minute that Windows 10 is a free lunch. Microsoft’s changing the way it makes money from Windows. I don’t have any problem with that, but I’d sure like to know more about what’s ahead.

A year ago, Executive Vice President of Windows and Devices Terry Myerson promised us:

"Once a Windows device is upgraded to Windows 10, we will continue to keep it current for the supported lifetime of the device -- at no cost. With Windows 10, the experience will evolve and get even better over time."

A year later and, in the absence of any definitive clarification, industry pundits have come to all sorts of conclusions. It’s clear to me, based on numerous comments, that Microsoft will not charge a monthly fee for Windows 10 after the July 29, 2016, free upgrade date passes. What’s not so clear is whether there will be other charges -- perhaps for new features -- and exactly what the “supported lifetime of the device” might be.

The debate flared after revelations that Microsoft retroactively declared Win7 and 8.1 won’t be supported on Skylake processors after July 17, 2017. If Microsoft can arbitrarily, and retroactively, set an end of life date for a particular kind of hardware, what’s to keep them from arbitrarily defining “supported lifetime”?

On the one hand, ZDNet and Microsoft Press sage Ed Bott predicts that Microsoft could start charging for Win10 fixes, it could extend the free upgrade offer indefinitely, or it could replace the old free upgrade offer with a new one, possibly with different limitations.

On the other hand, Gordon Kelly at Forbes predicts that Microsoft will start charging for Windows 10:

"The worst case scenario sees Microsoft evolve free Windows 10 into a SaaS (software as a service) model complete with monthly subscription in a few years time (Windows 10.1?). The precedent for enforcing this is also now there: users can avoid the subscription by staying on Windows 10 until support expires in 2025, but Microsoft can repeat its Windows 8 trick of removing support on new hardware so all Windows 10 computers become antiquated."

The fact that there’s any debate at all shows Microsoft hasn’t addressed the question adequately, quite possibly (as Bott suggests) because the decision hasn’t been made as yet.

All I can say is that it takes a whole lot of faith to jump on board a new operating system, without knowing how and/or if you’ll be charged six months down the road.

The bottom line
Credit: Danielle Scott via Flickr
The bottom line

I still think it’s smartest for Windows 7 customers to stand pat, unless they see something in Windows 10 that’s absolutely irresistible. The carrots in the current version 1511 aren’t that great for most. Microsoft’s infuriating push to Get Windows 10, and its uneven handling of the new Windows-as-a-service paradigm show the need for a whole lot of maturing, both in the product and in the way it’s handled.

Will the anticipated new Redstone build be good enough to tilt the scales? It’s still much too early to tell. Remember all the promises we had for the original RTM version, and how many never appeared? Perhaps we’ll have a rerun in June or July (or August or September), whenever Redstone hits.

In the meantime, Windows 10 itself is slowly getting better. It remains to be seen if the organization supporting it can iron out these problems.