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What’s Wrong with Windows Automatic Update?

If you’re setting up a system for Dear Aunt Belvedere who won’t look at anything on the web, okay, set her for Windows Automatic Update. But for anybody savvy enough to be reading these words, don’t do it.

Windows Automatic Update is for chumps.

The latest case in point: September 10, 2013 — the month before Windows 8.1 shipped. It was a heavy Patch Tuesday, with 13 advertised security bulletins. Most Windows users, of course, keep Automatic Update turned on — that’s the default. Big mistake.

Within minutes of the patches hitting the chute, there were surprise questions about an odd problem: Outlook 2013, on many machines, stopped showing the list of folders that normally appears on the left side of the screen.

Three hours later, Microsoft pulled the patch causing the problem. For reasons unknown at that point, the particular patch was clobbering a very significant percentage of Outlook 2013 systems.

Most people, when they hit a problem like disappearing folders in Outlook 2013, don’t pause to think that they may have been stung by a bad patch delivered silently by Microsoft. When they don’t have any idea why there’s a problem, they tend to jump to the Microsoft Answers forum. The people who run the forum (volunteers!) frequently find themselves in a situation where dozens — even hundreds — of people are complaining about a problem, and nobody at Microsoft answers their calls. That’s what happened with this patch, and the forum admins were livid.

The problem wasn’t just this one patch, though. Another patch told customers that they had to buy a copy of Office 2010. It was pulled and re-worked. Then there was a whole crop of security patches, all released on the same fateful Patch Tuesday, that kept installing and installing and installing themselves. And as if that weren’t bad enough, there were two non-security patches, also released through Automatic Update on Patch Tuesday, that kept installing over and over again. Ultimately, Microsoft fixed and re-released all of them, but thousands (perhaps tens or even hundreds of thousands) of Microsoft customers were left wondering what in the Sam Hill was going on.

It was also discovered that instead of the 13 announced security bulletins customers were expecting that fateful Tuesday, the Automatic Update chute was crammed with 30 security patches and 86 non-security patches. Nobody received all 116 patches but, depending on which version of Windows and which version of Office you were running, you could’ve received a sizable percentage of them.

If anybody ever tells you that you need to turn on Windows Automatic Update, pummel them with brickbats. Show them what happened on Black Tuesday, September 10, 2013. If that doesn’t change their mind about automatic Windows patching, nothing will.

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