Win8.1 Update becomes the new patch ‘baseline’

Woody Leonhard

When Windows 8.1 Update came down the chute last week, Microsoft tossed in a surprise: if you want Windows 8.1 security patches in the future, you have to install Win8.1 Update first.

The requirement is unlike any other in Windows’ history — and it’s been made more complicated by semantics and ongoing Win8.1 Update installation problems.

But there’s also a good part: Windows is evolving in front of our eyes.

First, a note on Microsoft’s terminology — which stinks! Windows 8.1 Update —with a capital U — is essentially one specific patch for Windows 8.1. That patch, KB 2919355, started rolling out on April 8 in the Black Tuesday (Patch Tuesday) lineup.

Rated important, the patch may be obtained in several ways. Most personal/small-business Win8.1 users will see KB 2919355 via Windows Update. That’s a departure from the upgrade to Windows 8.1, which was delivered via the Windows Store. You can also download Win8.1 Update from MSDN, if you have one of those expensive subscriptions, or via a corporate connection to Microsoft’s Windows Server Update Services (WSUS). If your company has purchased volume licenses, you can tap into Microsoft’s Volume Licensing Service Center. Confusingly, some of those versions are slightly different from KB 2919355. But for purposes of this discussion, KB 2919355 is “Windows 8.1 Update.”

(I reviewed Windows 8.1 Update in the April 3 Top Story. It doesn’t provide any earth-shattering enhancements to Windows 8 or 8.1, but there are a few worthwhile usability improvements for those who rely on a mouse and a keyboard.)

Win8.1 Update is not a service pack! Typically, Windows service packs contain patch rollups and a few new features. They’re tested relentlessly inside and outside Microsoft before they’re rolled out. Windows 8.1 wasn’t a service pack, but it, too, went through a lengthy test period. It was released a year after Windows 8.

Windows 8.1 Update could not have gone through the same level of vetting; it was released about five months after Windows 8.1.

In truth, neither Win 8.1 nor Win 8.1 Update qualifies as a service pack simply because Microsoft didn’t label them as such. Calling an update a “service pack” carries an important distinction. When Microsoft releases service packs for existing products, the company updates them with new patches for at least two years, according to an MS lifecycle policy FAQ. There’s no official policy listed for “point one” releases or “Updates.”

Microsoft’s Product Lifecycle chart states: “The product [Windows 8.1] falls under the same lifecycle policy as Windows 8 with support ending Jan. 10, 2023. However, customers have 24 months to move to Windows 8.1 after General Availability in order to remain supported.”

Based on that information, customers who installed Windows 8.1 had a reasonable expectation that Microsoft would continue to support it with security patches for at least two years. Not so! Effective this coming May 13, there will be no more security patches for Win8.1. If you want patches after May 13, you must install Windows 8.1 Update.

Why many Win8 users are ticked off by the change

Microsoft’s supporters put it like this: “If you want security patch C, you need to have installed security patch B first. In this case, security patch B just happens to be the 8.1 Update.”

While there’s merit in that point of view, it overlooks three important facts:

First, as reported in Susan Bradley’s April 10 Patch Watch column, a whole lot of people are having problems installing Windows 8.1 Update — and Microsoft hasn’t fixed the problems. Meantime, that May 13 clock is ticking down.

Second, Windows 8.1 Update is a lot more than a security patch. As I mentioned in the April 3 Top Story, it includes some significant changes to the Windows UI.

Third, Microsoft’s going to continue making patches for Windows 8.1. It just won’t give those updates to the average Windows user. That hurts.

It all boils down to trust — mostly in Microsoft’s ongoing support for specific versions of Windows and for delivering stable platforms (given point one releases, updates to point one releases, updates to updates, and so forth). The recent news that Windows 8.1 support would end so soon seemed to drop out of the clear blue sky — essentially when Windows 8.1 Update arrived. As far as I know (and I’m sure you’ll correct me if I’m wrong!), Win8.1’s extremely accelerated end-of-support deadline is a first for Windows. As already noted, even when products have been updated with massive service packs, Microsoft has always issued patches for pre–service pack versions for one or more years.

But once again, neither Win8.1 nor Windows 8.1 Update is an official “service pack.” So Microsoft can make up the rules as it goes along.

Enterprise admins really get slammed. If you’re in charge of a few hundred (or thousand or hundred thousand) computers, and you need to make sure they keep working, you need to thoroughly test patches before they’re distributed. Windows 8.1 Update is a big change — one that might require significant testing and possibly retraining for a whole lot of Windows users.

Those admins who’ve installed Windows 8.1 have very little time to roll out Win8.1 Update and stay current on the latest security patches. (What’s more confusing, Windows 8.0 systems will continue to get updates for two years.)

Change can be good — especially if your flagship product appears to be going down the drain. But making big, unannounced, abrupt, and effectively forced changes such as those associated with Win8.1 Update won’t win you any friends — or customers.

Where Microsoft might be going with these changes

Feeling comfortable about the future of Windows would be easier if we had some sort of road map. But Microsoft hasn’t provided one. Piecing together information from the recent changes — and from the many rumors swirling about — I’ve come to a few conclusions. They might be valid, or they could be well off the mark. But they’re based on decades of observing Microsoft.

First, Microsoft is clearly trying to pick up the pace of patch releases. That’s a stated, confirmed — and welcome — move. What isn’t so clear: What’s going to happen to Windows users who aren’t consistently installing, relatively quickly, new point releases of Windows? Or, as in the case of Windows 8.1 Update, they can’t install the latest and greatest.

Second, it seems that Microsoft is moving quickly toward the so-called three-versions branching of Windows. That’s likely to happen with Windows 9. It’s an about-face from the Win8 strategy of one UI for all devices.

I talked about the multiple Windows editions in the Feb. 27 Top Story, “Turmoil at Microsoft; implications for Windows users.” In a nutshell, there have been rumors and leaks that the next major release of Windows (code-named “Threshold” and expected to show up in early- to-mid-2015) will split into three versions.

If the speculation is accurate, there’ll be a Metro version, a desktop-first version, and what I like to call the “Old Fogy’s” version (OFV). The first two will receive frequent updates — perhaps every few months. The OFV will get security patches and other fixes, but no feature enhancements. Significant feature enhancements to the OFV will come only with major upgrades — possibly every one to three years.

The intent of the three-versions approach seems clear — if somewhat ingenious, given the current state of Windows 8. Again, keep in mind that all of this is speculation. Microsoft has said almost nothing about life beyond Windows 8.1 Update. That said, here’s how it looks from my perch.

Microsoft will build a Windows 9 version — let’s call it Win9 Mobile, for now — tuned for touch-based, portable devices, mostly for what we now call slates, tablets, and phones. I predict that this version will look much like Metro does now. This version will absorb Windows RT, which will disappear from the lineup. Good riddance!

The second version, which we’ll tag as Win9 Personal, will be aimed primarily at individuals and small businesses that remain solidly attached to a keyboard and mouse. My guess is that Personal will look remarkably like Windows 8.1 Update does now, but with two major additions: a resurrected Start menu and floating Metro windows on the desktop.

It’s roughly the same setup that Windows head Terry Myerson showed off at the recent Microsoft Build conference (YouTube video). At the time, Myerson promised that Microsoft “would be making those features available to all Windows 8.1 users as an update.” (Yes, one might call it a Windows 8.1 Update Update — no doubt distributed by the Department of Redundancy Department.) Most likely, those frequent updates will be required.

The Old Fogy’s Version (I should trademark that) is meant for companies that don’t want to undertake the regular self-flagellation ceremony of updating all PCs every few months. As noted above, OFV will get security patches, but no significant UI “improvements.”

The Windows 8.1 Update patching requirement reflects the three-version approach, to some extent. As stated, if you have Windows 8.1, you must install Windows 8.1 Update to receive new patches (essentially the Win9 Mobile and Personal approach). If you stuck with Windows 8, you don’t need to do anything — Microsoft will continue to issue security patches for Windows 8, but the UI remains unchanged (as with the OFV approach).

Along with the three versions of Windows 9, I also expect to see Microsoft renting Windows, just as it currently does Office. I’ve no idea how that’ll work out, but Microsoft is having success with Office 365. So a Windows 365 might fit in nicely in a breakneck-patching scenario. Presumably, you wouldn’t need to apply patches — they’d just magically appear.

Again, I have no insider information on any of this. It’s just a logical projection (one of many possible such universes) of what we’ve seen and what little Microsoft has disclosed. But Microsoft’s new patching rules for Windows 8/8.1/8.1 Update, flawed as they might be, fit neatly into a three-version vision of Windows 9.

Some important decisions you should make soon

So where does that leave Windows 8 users who aren’t hooked up to a corporate WSUS server?

Unless Microsoft changes its mind (we can always hope), you have only two options:

Stick with Windows 8.0: If you’re still on Windows 8 (that is, you haven’t installed Win8.1), you might want to consider staying on Windows 8. Many companies will be doing exactly that; they’re not comfortable with the vagueness of future Windows 8.1 changes — or with the evidence that Microsoft is changing established patching rules as it goes along. Individuals will have to decide whether stability is preferable to the considerable benefits of Windows 8.1 Update. But if stability is key, I’d argue that you’re better off with Windows 7.

Move on to Windows 8.1 Update: If you’ve already installed Win8.1, Microsoft made the choice for you. If you want to stay secure, sometime between now and May 13 you’ll need to get Windows 8.1 Update installed and working. For most people, that means applying patch KB 2919355 via Windows/Microsoft Update. For some people, that process will be painful. I haven’t seen KB 2919355 break any machines, but many people have wasted untold hours trying to get it installed.

True confessions of a Windows 8 critic

I’ve been running Windows 8 on my main production machine since before the OS was released. I installed Windows 8.1 as soon as it came out on MSDN, and I moved to Windows 8.1 Update in late March when the likely final bits leaked. I’ve used Windows 8 and 8.1 — and I now use Win8.1 Update — all day, every day. I write books about all versions of Windows 8. Heck, I write books with the OS. I write a lot, which means I pound on Windows mercilessly.

You’ve probably seen my ongoing criticisms of Windows 8, and I obviously think they’re well deserved. I believe former Windows chief Steve Sinofsky and crew missed the boat, forcing the Metro/Modern UI down our throats. They used a stick and not a carrot. I’m convinced that Windows hit an all-time low point with the release of Windows 8. Yes, even lower than ME. That’s saying something.

But you know what? Windows 8 is getting better. The changes in Version 8.1 might have left me cold, but I have somewhat warmer feelings about Windows 8.1 Update. Although the changes are fewer than I would like, they make it possible (if not particularly easy) to stay out of Metro and get some work done. I wouldn’t say that Win8.1 Update is significantly better than Windows 7 for the kind of work I do. But it isn’t bad — and there are some features that actually work better than they do in Win7.

I guess that realization hit home when, heaven help me, I pinned a Metro app on my Desktop taskbar. (Don’t tell anybody; OK? I have a reputation to protect.) I decided that checking weather reports was easier using the Win8 Weather app than by opening my browser and clicking a bookmark or unlocking my phone and clicking its Weather icon.

Yeah, I know the app looks ridiculous displayed full screen on a 30-inch monitor, but with Windows 8.1 Update, it takes just a few seconds to launch the Weather app from the taskbar, see what the coming weekend looks like, and then click X to return to work on the desktop.

Sometimes different is better. As long as Microsoft lets me dabble with Metro — and doesn’t force it down my throat — I might just pin another Win8 app. Could happen!

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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2014-04-24:

Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.