Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Microsoft's Bloody Tuesday

Originally published on Kupeesh as Fear and Loathing of a Microsoft Patch

Poor Microsoft, it's been a tough couple of years for the software giant as it's gone through management upheavals, a failed operating system and a lackluster foray into the mobile market.

It seems they just can't catch a break...

That doesn't preclude them, however, from breaking things.

Case in point.  Last week's round of "Patch Tuesday" updates was filled to the brim with security and operating system fixes that millions of Windows PC's dutifully installed via automatic updates.

Normally keeping an operating system up to date is a good idea if you want to keep the bad guys out of your stuff.  But what do you do when the supposed good guys blow up your computer?

That's a question thousands of Windows users are asking as they now find themselves between the rock of Internet security threats and the hard place of a botched update.  

Even longtime Microsoft watchers like Paul Thurott (Windows Weekly, Winsupersite) can only answer with, "That's a tough one."

The patch causing so much trouble is a seemingly innocuous update to the Russian Ruble currency symbol in the windows font library (KB 2970228).  Apparently some users are experiencing everything from screwed up fonts to Blue Screens of Death (BSOD) after its installation.  As a workaround Microsoft is currently advising users to remove it and 3 other updates (KB2982791,KB2975719,KB2975331) that contain the offending code.  In addition, the download description pages for the affected update patches have had their download links removed while Microsoft, "investigates the issue."

Windows 7 and 8 are arguably the most robust operating systems Microsoft has ever produced.  So the return of the BSOD nemesis from the days of Windows XP is going to raise some eyebrows.  BSOD's only arise when a core operating system function has failed beyond recovery.  

That's something we thought we left behind when the house of cards that was Windows XP finally shuffled off the stage.  So with so much progress, how could Microsoft allow an obviously unvetted update to be distributed on platforms from Server 2003 to Windows 8.1.

Yes I know, Microsoft, unlike Apple, doesn't control every variant of hardware that runs their software.  But it's for exactly that reason that one would think their update policy would err on the side of caution.  That goes double in a week that also saw major outages of the company's Azure cloud services.

Instead Microsoft seems bent on releasing new products (patches included) like automakers release new cars.  But operating systems aren't Chevy's and rushing new products to market always leaves something to be desired.  Just ask GM about taking shortcuts in a process for proof.

So what's the answer when a strategy of "rapid release" seems to rule the day.  Unfortunately it's "Caveat Emptor," Buyer Beware.  Microsoft appears committed to shooting out software patches and asking questions later.  So for now, you may just want to switch those automatic updates to "manual" and wait a week after Patch Tuesday to install those non-critical updates.

In this case the cure was worse than the disease.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

A new perspective on old Operating systems

I see a lot of uproar over Operating systems lately. 

Not the normal Windows versus Mac versus Linux fare.  No, the wailing starts around the time an older version is no longer supported meaning no further updates are produced for it and every request for help is met with the maddening phrase...

"Upgrade to the newer version."

Now truth be told, we rarely hear anyone complaining much about the abandonment of an old version of Mac OSX or a Linux distribution.  Devotees of those platforms are usually breathlessly awaiting the next release. 

It's usually the Windows world that complains the most and with good reason.  Their customer base is always wary of a new Microsoft release especially if it follows a successful predecessor.  That's because success is usually followed by failure.  A short review of recent history bears that out..

  • Windows 2003/Windows XP - Stable, easy to manage and user friendly at least after the first service packs.
  • Windows Vista - I don't care what Paul Thurott says, it was/is slow and almost completely unusable before service pack 2.  Microsoft's "my way or the highway" stance didn't help it gain many fans either.  It's the reason why Windows XP only recently entered obsolescence.
  • Windows 7 - Everything Vista should have been and for many the worthy successor to XP.
  • Windows 8 - A sign of things to come in interface design but a bit too much too soon.  Great for tablets but lousy on anything without a touch screen. 

So the trend is evident.  Expect the release of a successful Microsoft product to be immediately followed by a failure. 

Perhaps a change of perspective is needed here.

Operating systems are just "products" and products have a shelf life.  That means after a certain amount of time they go "bad."

So I'm proposing we think of operating systems in the same way we think about cars. 

When you buy a new car you can expect that for at least 5 years you're going to have full support from the factory that made it.  Any little thing that goes wrong will be quickly and cheerfully rectified and you can bet that all the latest features will be there for the taking.

Now moving past that 5 year mark we're getting into the realm of "mature" products.  You may still have a warranty but you're going to find that if the sun visor falls off it's going to be fixed but it's probably going to be on your dime.  If the engine blows up, however, it'll probably be covered.  Don't expect any feature updates from the factory though.  They've moved on to this year's model which more likely than not isn't much different than yours so there's no real compelling reason to "upgrade."

Once we get to 10 years you now own an old car.  You're probably not visiting the dealer to get it repaired anymore mostly because it's too expensive.  If you hold on to it you've either got a trusted mechanic close to home or you've suddenly taken an interest in automotives.

Over 10 years and the words "End of Life" start showing up.  At this point you're into legacy status and the factory could care less about your car.  If you really like the car you'll find all sorts of "aftermarket" parts and services to keep it running.  Chances are the factory and dealer won't be able to do much for you at this point. 

I think the model works pretty well for operating systems too.  At some point you have to accept that nothing is forever.  A 12 year old operating system is like a 12 year old car.  Obsolete, poorly supported by its maker and dependent on an "aftermarket" to support it.  There's nothing wrong with the aftermarket so long as they have good standing but it's a roll of the dice.  Also know that just as an old car may not have the safety features or fuel efficiency of a new model, an old OS may not be as secure or perform as well as a newer one.

So run Windows XP or MAC OSX Tiger if you want, just know that from now on you're going to be on your own.