Thursday, June 14, 2012

Microsoft's 10 Pound Sledgehammer

Last night while I was sleeping, Microsoft hit my computer with a sledgehammer. Well no, not in the literal sense. But figuratively that's what they did.

I sat down at my computer this morning to check email, and found it hung up somewhere in the shutting-down part of a reboot. Since it was pretty obvious the process was going nowhere, I hit the power switch to cycle power and waited for the computer to boot. Once it was up and I could log in, a somewhat familiar status message greeted me in the system tray:

It was familiar because this is not the first time that Microsoft has taken their sledgehammer to my computer in the middle of the night. The first time that happened I opened the Automatic Updates settings and changed the setting to "Notify me but don't automatically download or install them". It had been "Download updates for me, but let me choose when to install them". "Silly Microsoft," I remember thinking back then, "they must not be interpreting those sentences the same way I am." So, I figured taking one step further away from the "Microsoft has total control" end of the spectrum might be enough to take the sledgehammer out of their hands.

It wasn't.

And now I was angry. Angry that despite my due diligence to prohibit Microsoft from rebooting my computer, Microsoft went ahead and did it anyway. A little bit of searching on Google revealed that I am not the only angry one.

So what's the big deal with this, anyway? Why am I so steamed that Microsoft just reaches into my home and reboots my computer without my knowledge or permission? There are a few specific reasons, but they all boil down to this: it's my computer and I get to decide when and how I use it.

I leave my computer on all the time. It performs its backups in the wee small hours of the morning. Sometimes I leave tests running for days at a time (I write software for a living and as a hobby). And sometimes I simply get up from my computer and go to bed without closing files or programs. Hey, my computer is powered by a UPS that gives me plenty of time to shut things down if power goes out. And I am fastidious about what software gets installed and/or allowed to remain on my computer, so I don't worry about virus and other nasties causing it to crash. It doesn't crash. (I hear you Linux-oids snickering out there. Don't laugh; Windows XP can be very stable if you take care of it, and you can make Linux quite wobbly if you don't know what you're doing.)

My expectation is that, unless I explicitly shut my computer down, it is going to stay running. And Microsoft's sledgehammer shatters that expectation.

Okay, so here's what is really going on. It seems that the Windows Update service really is obeying the instructions given to it in the Automatic Updates settings panel. It really is waiting to get my okay to install updates and potentially reboot. But when the Windows Update service itself needs to be updated, that is another matter entirely, and the service doesn't follow the Automatic Updates settings. My Google searching turned up one idea for solving this problem. There are probably more, but I haven't found them yet. I haven't tried this idea yet, but when I do I'll write about it here. The potential solution involves making changes to group policy; go read about it at Tech-Reveal.

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