Microsoft has admitted that some users may not get Vista SP1 offered to them through Windows Update. Why? Read on...
If Vista detects that your system might have a problem with SP1, it won't offer to install it through Windows Update — but it won't tell you that the patch has been blocked either. We asked Microsoft why the service couldn't be more informative, and the answer wasn't pretty.
Right now, Windows Vista SP1 is supposed to be slowly winging its way out to 140 million Vista users, offering better general stability and improved copying performance (albeit perhaps not for dual boot users). After a protracted testing period, SP1 was made available for download in March, and was released for the Automatic Update service in mid-April, where it will in theory trickle down onto most Vista machines over the next few months. But just how many Vista users will actually ever receive it, and why does Microsoft make the process so difficult?
My own journey to Vista Service Pack 1 was somewhat convoluted. As soon as the final non-beta version was released, I tried to get it from Windows Update. It told me no new updates were available, even though early adopters everywhere were reporting that SP1 was available via Windows the service. I checked the knowledge base article on potential problems, but couldn't spot anything wrong.
I contacted technical support (available free for any SP1 problems, which is handy). After a day or so munching over system logs and pursuing a couple of non-issues, support concluded the problem was a minor driver for the fingerprint reader on my Lenovo T61. Windows Update wasn't set up to automatically fix this, and neither was Lenovo's own System Update software. However, once I'd downloaded and installed the driver and rebooted my machine, Windows Update was happy to take half a gigabyte of my download allowance and install SP1.
So far, no more painful than usual, but I couldn't help reflecting on what would happen to the average PC owner, who wasn't actively seeking out SP1. On my machine (a not uncommon model), they would never get it without some serious outside intervention. Even if they were aware that SP1 existed, visiting Windows Update would tell them that no updates were available, at which point they might well conclude that it had already been installed. End result? A system patch which was unused and ignored, and whose absence might render their PC unusable or insecure further down the line.
What struck me as odd about this scenario was that Vista went to all the effort of establishing if the requisite driver updates were in place, but didn't communicate any of that information back to the end user. How hard would it be to generate a simple notice saying that Windows did not download SP1 because some existing drivers were not up-to-date? Even if it couldn't produce a specific list of drivers — and to be frank I can't see why that would be so difficult, given that it had already checked for them — a general notice that there was a problem detected would at least get the PC owner to look into the problem.
As it happened, the following week I had an interview scheduled with Michael Kleef, an evangelist for Microsoft Australia, on the topic of SP1. I asked him about it, and he said he didn't know the answer offhand, but would get back to me. After a mere five weeks, following repeated reminders from me and evasive comments from MS staff, I finally got this response, which Microsoft was at pains to emphasise was to be attributed to a Microsoft spokesperson rather than anyone in particular:
"Windows Update works with a client and a backend service component. The Windows Update clients are built in as part of the operating system and provide the connection to the service as well as providing any user interfaces to the user. While Windows Update can work with the client to detect and service drivers that require updating, and in some cases, prevent other components such as service packs from being deployed when the necessary drivers are not at the correct version, it cannot currently present a user interface to inform the customer that they aren’t being offered an update because a prerequisite isn't being met."
So, let's get this clear: apparently Windows Update can't display a message telling you a service pack hasn't been made available, although it knows that hasn't happened, and even knows why. The last time I checked, generating an on-screen message was not one of the more challenging programming tasks on the planet. That's a reason why most programming tutorials start with a 'Hello World' message. The argument that the online service component can't provide any input to the desktop client beggars belief; browser-based services manage this all the time without incident.
Given Microsoft's effective silence on the topic, it's easy to speculate on possible non-technical reasons for this approach. The obvious one is that they don't want their support lines flooded with calls from people who have SP1 screw up for whatever reason. That particular problem could be avoided by writing better software in the first place, of course.
The second possibility is that Microsoft doesn't want to make too much noise about SP1 for the general public, given that Vista itself is only a year old. Why advertise that your highly-hyped new OS needed a CD-full of fixes for its first birthday? At the very least, the company might want to wait until most PCs in the retail channel have SP1 in place, so that people don't feel they're getting short-changed.
No matter what the reason, though, it isn't good enough. Keeping your PC patched is still a major challenge for most non-geek types. Why make it even harder than it has to be? We can only hope that the word "currently" at the end of that answer is a glimmer of hope that the software giant might get it right sometime before Windows 7.