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What’s the Most Secure Way to Handle OS Upgrades?

Your computer’s operating system may or may not be designed with security in mind, but without ongoing software updates, your computer is vulnerable. How do operating systems handle sending out these updates and which approaches are the most secure?

Why Do We Need Software Updates?

There are three key reasons software updates are important.

  • New Features: OS developers provide new features all the time. We want them. Gone are the days when you buy a new box to get the new code. Now you get the goods via software updates.
  • Security Patches: It’s impossible to know all of the vulnerabilities in a program before releasing it into the wild. Updates containing security patches bolster the defenses of the code running on our devices. You can mitigate much of your risk by running the latest versions of software.
  • Ongoing Support: These days we declare a device alive or dead not based on whether it still works, but rather if it still receives updates. A device that no longer receives updates is one that will gradually lose access to newer apps, successfully loads fewer websites, and becomes increasingly vulnerable to exploitation.

There are two ways to distribute these updates. One approach is a centralized model, where a single company manages all of the updates that go to your device, regardless of which brand or model you use.

In a decentralized model, the components that go into your OS come from many sources. There is a degree of separation between the developers and those who package all those various parts together for users.

Both approaches have their pros and cons. Proprietary desktop OSes such as Microsoft Windows, Apple macOS, and Google Chrome OS all take a centralized approach. GNU/Linux has a decentralized model.

How Microsoft Windows Distributes OS Updates

Windows 10 on a Dell convertible laptop
Image Credit: Microsoft

Microsoft distributes OS updates to anyone with a Windows PC. These updates go out based on what version of Windows you run.

For most of Windows’ history, switching to a new version of the OS was expensive. This encouraged many people to continue using older versions. With Windows 10, the situation is different. Microsoft provided Windows 10 for free initially and has said that rather than release another major upgrade, the company will now focus on iterating the desktop through software updates.

Microsoft has traditionally supported popular versions of Windows well after the release of one or two successive releases. Windows 7, for example, still received updates half a decade after the release of Windows 10.

Windows Update automatically downloads updates

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and forces users to install them. This can be frustrating, but it keeps computers up to date. Just make sure you create regular backups. While unlikely, system updates can botch your installation of Windows (or any other OS for that matter).

Security Assessment

Microsoft is transparent about how long Windows releases will receive support. This helps users make informed decisions about their hardware purchases. Forced updates also keep users patched and up-to-date, protecting more of us from exploits.

Still, a large number of Windows users aren’t using Windows 10. Some are using versions that are severely out of date, making the Windows landscape as a whole a vulnerable and easy target.

How Apple macOS Distributes OS Updates

macOS on an Apple MacBook

Apple provides OS updates directly to users via a dedicated Software Update tool. Unlike Windows, macOS does not automatically update your OS, but you can turn that feature on. Manual updates give you time to backup your data before getting new software.

Apple doesn’t explicitly state how long it will support each version of macOS. Generally, the three most recent releases will receive security patches. With new versions arriving every year

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, that means you can expect roughly three years of support.

Unfortunately, the end of life for older releases can arrive at any time without any heads up or official announcement. Apple’s security updates page shows what updates have arrived but not how long they will keep coming.

This doesn’t tell the whole story. Generally speaking, there’s little reason not to upgrade to the latest version of macOS. Changes tend to be more iterative compared to the revolutionary changes that took place between Windows 7 to 8 and Windows 8 to 10. Upgrades were relatively cheap in the past, and now they’re free.

Since macOS is only available on Apple hardware, the company can explicitly list which devices it will support. Unfortunately, if your MacBook or iMac is not on the list, you’re out of luck. You must now replace macOS with Windows or Linux to have an OS with ongoing updates, even if your hardware is technically perfectly capable of running the latest version of macOS.

Security Assessment

Manual updates give you time to back up your data, but many people choose to never install updates, leaving them more vulnerable to exploits. Apple also doesn’t tell us when a given OS release will reach the end of its support period.

On the flip side, Apple generally supports a given computer model for many years. Just make sure you consistently upgrade to the latest OS. You can check out Apple’s list of obsolete products.

How Google Chrome OS Distributes OS Updates

Google Chrome OS on a Samsung convertible laptop

On a Chromebook, updates are quiet and automatic. It doesn’t matter which device you buy, if your model is supported, you will receive each update in a matter of days. Google manages most of the software experience, so Chrome OS feels the same regardless of which Chromebook you buy.

Google provides updates on a regular schedule. Maybe OS updates come roughly every six weeks, with security patches and software updates arriving twice as frequently. You have the option to turn off automatic updates if you prefer.

But Google is not transparent about how long each Chromebook or Chromebox will receive support. The company doesn’t actually base support times on operating system version (like Microsoft) or specific devices (like Apple). Instead, Chrome OS support depends on which chipset sits inside your machine. Google promises to support each chipset for six and a half years after launch.

That poses a problem. Most of us do not know what hardware lies underneath our keyboards. We can easily buy a Chromebook using a chipset that’s been around for five years already, without knowing we will only receive one and a half years of support.

Thanks to Chrome OS’s design, the danger of going without software updates is magnified. Since Chrome OS combines the web browser with the rest of the OS, when OS updates stop, your web browser will no longer receive updates. This is not the case on other platforms, where you can update apps separately.

Security Assessment:

Chrome OS strikes a nice balance between keeping users up to date with automatic updates while giving us the freedom to upgrade at our own pace by doing things manually. But the company’s support period is largely obscure and, given Chrome OS’s design, substantially more important.

How GNU/Linux Desktops Distribute OS Updates

Purism Librem 13 privacy laptop
Image Credit: Purism

We usually refer to GNU/Linux simply as Linux, but in this case it’s important to clarify things. Google’s Chrome OS is based on Linux, but how it operates is fundamentally different from other versions of Linux based on GNU software.

There are hundreds of different GNU-based desktops you can download. Most give you a degree of freedom on how you approach software updates. Generally, notifications will arrive automatically, but you must manually download and install the update. You can do so using a simple app or the command line.

How often you receive updates depends on the size of your chosen Linux distribution. You can use a given version of Linux until your machine no longer meets the minimal system requirements, which for a growing number of Linux desktops means a 64-bit processor.

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If you use a more niche version of Linux, you have a greater risk of losing access to updates due to the project ceasing to exist. Under such circumstances, you’re free to switch to another version of Linux and keep on trucking.

Security Assessment

GNU desktops have the longest support life. Your desktop will continue to work for as long as your hardware meets system requirements. And if your preferred Linux distribution does end support, you can just switch to another.

Updates are not automatic, but there are other aspects of the way free software gets distributed that have a larger impact on whether the various parts of your OS are truly up-to-date. Since software is not produced in a central location, new updates and patches may be available for months or years before the people who make your version of Linux get around to packaging and releasing them.

Which Method Is the Most Secure?

In this case, the means is less important than the ends. If you manually update your PC every day or two and keep software up-to-date, then your machine is effectively as secure as one that receives automatic updates.

Making updates automatic primarily prevents machines from going months and years without updates, becoming susceptible to long-fixed vulnerabilities that make not only those machines but, due to botnets

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, the rest of us less safe.

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Mozilla steps on the gas, cuts time between Firefox upgrades in half

Mozilla on Tuesday announced it would accelerate Firefox releases by reducing the interval between upgrades to just four weeks.

Firefox has been on a relatively rapid release cadence – an upgrade every six to eight weeks – since 2011, when Mozilla shifted to a faster schedule, a move seen at the time as reaction to the then-up-and-coming Chrome from Google. Prior to that, Mozilla spent up to a year – and longer – between upgrades.

Now, it’ll be just four weeks.

“We’re adjusting our cadence to increase our agility, and bring you new features more quickly,” wrote Ritu Kothari and Yan Or, the Firefox release management team leader and senior director of product integrity, respectively, in a post to Mozilla’s Hacks blog. “We’ve had many requests to take features to market sooner ((and)) feature teams are increasingly working in sprints that align better with shorter release cycles.”_

Mozilla will ease into the faster pace, said Kothari and Or. The next interval – between the already-out Firefox 69 and the future Firefox 70 – will remain at seven weeks but the next (between Firefoxes 70 and 71) will be shortened to six weeks. (Until the cadence change, the year’s final interval was to be seven weeks.) The next two upgrades, to Firefoxes 72 and 73, will take place in January and February, each five weeks after its predecessor. The pace will quicken to four weeks with Firefox 74, slated to ship in March, and remain there.

Kothari and Or showed a timetable of planned launch dates under the new scheme: The timetable indicated 13 releases of Firefox in 2020, or almost double the number of recent years. Mozilla delivered seven upgrades in 2017 and another seven in 2018; it’s slated to do the same this year. In 2018, the average interval between upgrades was 56 days, exactly twice the length of the future four-week span.

The two Mozilla officials touted the advantages of new 28-day interval. “Shorter release cycles provide greater flexibility to support product planning and priority changes due to business or market requirements,” Kothari and Or asserted. “With four-week cycles, we can be more agile, and ship features faster. Also, we put new features and implementation of new Web APIs into the hands of developers more quickly.”

Firefox Extended Support Release (ESR) – the designed-for-enterprise build that limits feature changes to about once each year – will not be affected by the faster tempo. “We anticipate a major ESR release every 12 months with three months support overlap between new ESR and end-of-life of previous ESR,” Kothari and Or said. The next two ESR releases will be in June 2020 and June 2021.

To account for the shorter periods of development, Mozilla will increase the frequency with which it cuts and distributes new betas, said Kothari and Or. “We will move to more frequent Beta builds, similar to what we have today in Firefox Nightly,” the two wrote.

And even though it will be even more important than before to move customers from one version to the next, Mozilla still intends to roll-out each new Firefox in stages so that if a problem pops up, it does not affect everyone.

Firefox release schedule Mozilla

Mozilla has set a new release schedule for Firefox that will cut the interval between upgrades by about half.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Windows 10 1803-to-1903 forced upgrades gather speed

Microsoft has focused its Windows 10 attention on upgrading hundreds of millions of machines before they lose rights to security updates in three months.

From June 26 to July 25, the portion of all Windows 10 systems running the May 2019 Update, a.k.a. 1903 in Microsoft’s four-numeral format, almost doubled, climbing 5 percentage points to 11.4%, according to analytics company AdDuplex.

To compensate, in the same period Windows 10 1803 — the “April 2018 Update” — fell 4.3 points to 53.7%. However, the next feature upgrade, 1809, dipped just three-tenths of a percentage point to 29.7%.

The likeliest explanation for the changes — 1903 up, 1803 down, 1809 flat — was Microsoft’s July 16 announcement that it had started forcible upgrades “for customers with devices that are at or nearing end of service and have not yet updated their device.”

Windows 1803 is the only version that meets the “at or nearing end of service” requirement: It is to fall off the support list Nov. 12.

Managed PCs can be upgraded to a version other than 1903, but those that have been left for Microsoft to service — every consumer system and many small- and even mid-sized business devices — now running 1803 will be pushed onto 1903 because of an April upheaval to Windows 10’s upgrade model. It was then that Microsoft said it would add a “Download and Install Now” (DaIN) option to Windows 10 Home and Windows 10 Pro, for the first time giving users of the former control over when they moved to a newer version of the OS. But to maintain a secure ecosystem, Microsoft reserved the right to intervene when an upgrade’s support lifecycle came to a close.

win10 update 1803 dain IDG

This copy of Windows 10 Pro 1803 is being warned that it’s getting close to end of support (top yellow text) and that it’s ready to upgrade to 1903 at the user’s discretion (lower text). If the user doesn’t pull the trigger, Microsoft will.

Windows 10 1803 remains huge because 1809 dropped the ball

As early as March, AdDuplex’s data signaled that Microsoft had largely abandoned efforts to distribute the October 2018 Update, a.k.a. 1809. Computerworld predicted that Microsoft would handle the months-long delay in re-releasing 1809 by skipping that version and getting users onto 1903 when that launched.

That’s exactly what the latest AdDuplex data indicated: Microsoft pushed 1903 at PCs running 1803 because of the impending support deadline. At the same time, Microsoft didn’t disturb systems already running 1809 because on Home and Pro it’s to receive security updates for another nine months (until May 12, 2020).

It remains unclear whether this year’s changes — the DaIN option first, then the July revelation that the fall 2019 feature upgrade would be mostly without new features and would resemble the long-discarded service packs of Windows XP, Vista and 7 — organically grew out of the 1809 debacle and delay, or whether Microsoft had plans already in the works to give consumers upgrade oversight and turn Windows 10’s release cadence into a major-minor tempo. In the end, it doesn’t really matter.

What does — assuming AdDuplex’s data accurately paints Windows 10’s fragmentation — is that Microsoft has just three months to move the majority of 800 million-plus PCs off 1803 and onto something newer, presumably 1903. (Microsoft could, Computerworld supposes, upgrade the last month-and-a-half ‘s worth of 1803 PCs to the very latest, 1909, after that service pack-like version releases in September. But that would be a much bolder move than Microsoft typically takes.)

The 90 days, give or take, remaining before Windows 10 1803 loses support is not an insurmountable obstacle: Microsoft has upgraded more than half of its Windows 10 base in that amount of time before. For example, over 50% of Windows 10 PCs shifted to 1709 within two months of its debut. For that matter, the same happened with last year’s 1803.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Microsoft pares Windows 10 feature upgrades to 1 a year

Microsoft has again given its Windows 10 update model a furious shake, voiding one of the foundational concepts of the “Windows as a service” (WaaS) strategy.

In a multi-part announcement spread across three blog posts, Microsoft on July 1 said it had begun testing of the next Windows 10 feature upgrade, which it has codenamed 19H2 but by the company’s four-digit (yymm) labeling will be tagged with 1909 when it ships.

The first build of 19H2/1909 was released that same day to Windows Insider participants who set their PCs to receive the “Slow” ring versions. Insider will continue to deliver previews of 20H1 – the feature upgrade that will likely be dubbed 2003 to show it was completed in March 2020 – to testers on the “Fast” ring, as has been the case since February, when Microsoft debuted next year’s edition.

Although Microsoft did not put the announcement’s biggest news in plain English – instead relying on some marketing-speak, coded language and at least one new acronym – that news was impossible to miss.

Microsoft has ditched the idea of generating more than one feature upgrade annually, and will instead produce a single substantial refresh, apparently each spring.

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A word of warning about Android upgrades in 2019

Hear ye, hear ye, citizens of the Android-using world. You no doubt know by now that Android upgrades are, by and large, a steaming hot mess (to use the technical term). But there’s new reason to remain alert and think extra carefully about any Android phone purchase you might one day consider.

You’re probably already aware that no Android phone-maker other than Google treats timely and reliable software upgrades as a top priority and explicit guarantee. That’s nothing new, and we’ve seen the results of that reality time and time again — both with the platform’s monthly security patches and with the larger operating system updates that surround them (and yes, both elements absolutely matter).

But beneath the painfully slow rollouts and the insulting lack of communication by the companies that make these devices, there’s always been an understanding that at the very least, top-tier Android phones will receive significant OS updates for a minimum of two years from the time they’re launched. It’s an implicit agreement that’s long existed, originally as an 18-month window and then eventually (mhmm) up to the two-year standard we know today. Google alone increases that guarantee to a full three years with its Pixel products, but two years is the understood ecosystem-wide bare minimum.

Well, gang, it appears that agreement is now null and void. Motorola just launched a new phone, the Moto Z4, and is presently planning on providing only a single OS update for the device. The website Digital Trends first reported the news, and I confirmed it directly with Motorola myself: The Moto Z4, according to its maker, will be upgraded to Android Q (at some point). While Moto will “continue to evaluate additional OS upgrades,” however, the company is not committing to anything beyond that one single bump.

Now, there’s an argument to be made that the Moto Z4 isn’t technically a “flagship” phone. The device is priced at $499. But at the same time, it is part of Motorola’s typically flagship-caliber Moto Z line — and it’s the closest thing to a top-tier phone in the company’s lineup this year.

The broader point, though, is that it ultimately shouldn’t matter. There’s simply zero justification for spending $500 on a phone and not knowing it’ll be up to date and optimal to use for more than a single measly year. Remember, OS upgrades are about more than just superficial features and interface changes; they contain significant under-the-hood improvements along with important security and privacy enhancements — things that go beyond the fast little fixes provided in those separate monthly patches. And they introduce both expansions and restrictions to APIs, which are what permit third-party apps to interact with your phone and data and perform a variety of advanced functions. To say they aren’t important is to fundamentally misunderstand how Android actually works.

Earlier this year, I used that logic to create a new set of practical guidelines for assessing a phone’s value — by thinking of a phone as a multiyear investment and evaluating its worth accordingly. The gist of it is that once a phone is no longer receiving OS updates, it’s no longer advisable to use for anyone who prioritizes an optimal level of privacy, security, and performance in their mobile device. So with that in mind, we can take the device’s total price and perform some telling calculations.

Power up your mental calculator, my comrade. It’s time for a little eye-opening math to illustrate just how absurd Motorola’s single-upgrade proposition truly is.

Mobile math

Up first: If you bought Google’s Pixel 3 around the time of its release and planned to keep it for the full three years it’s guaranteed to receive timely software updates, you’d essentially be paying $267 a year for that experience and everything it entails — as the phone costs $800 and is advisable to use for the three years in which it’s supported.

Next: If you were thinking about the Galaxy S10, you’d have to take its $900 starting price and divide that by two — for the two years it’s guaranteed to receive operating system updates — which brings you to about $450 a year.

Now, for the Moto Z4: With that device, you’d be looking at only that single year of guaranteed support, which means you’d ultimately be paying $500 a year for the phone — more per year of advisable use than even the already-inflated Galaxy S10! The lower starting price suddenly isn’t so enticing when you consider it with that full perspective.

And you know what? It’s even less enticing when you consider the fact that Google is now selling its Pixel 3a phone for $399. That phone, like its higher-end Pixel 3 sibling, is guaranteed to get OS updates for a full three years — which means, with our advisable-device-life math, it costs you a mere $133 a year if you buy it close to the time of its launch. And that’s for an experience that’s objectively superior to the Moto Z’s in pretty much every meaningful measure.

Android Upgrades: Cost of Ownership JR

Effectively paying almost $500 a year for a decidedly so-so phone when you can get a superior experience for a fraction of the price — let alone a top-of-the-line experience for significantly less shekels per year — is pretty darn crazy. And I’m not sure how anyone, including Motorola, can possibly justify it.

The Android landscape is constantly evolving, and now more than ever, as Android device-makers try to cut corners by shying away from established practices and norms, the responsibility falls upon you as an educated and practical-minded phone-owner to figure out what you’re actually getting with any given phone — not just in terms of first-day features but in terms of the device’s entire likely life span — and then to make your purchasing decisions accordingly.

As has always been the case with Android, the option for optimal software support most certainly does exist. It’s simply up to you to decide how much of a priority that is for you and then to choose a device that provides the type of experience and longer-term value you want.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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Microsoft cranks up Windows 10 1803-to-1903 forcible upgrades

Microsoft this week quietly alerted customers running last year’s Windows 10 version 1803 that it would soon start a forced upgrade to the latest feature refresh.

In a note added to the Windows release health dashboard on June 18, Microsoft wrote: “We are now beginning to build and train the machine learning (ML) based rollout process to update devices running the April 2018 Update, and earlier versions of Windows 10, to ensure we can continue to service these devices.”

The move was expected, as last month Microsoft said that starting in late June it would begin upgrading Windows 10 Home PCs – and perhaps Windows 10 Pro systems as well – from 1803, the April 2018 Update, to this year’s 1903.

Previously, Computerworld had pegged June 25 – the fourth and final Tuesday of the month – as the likeliest date for Microsoft to begin the forced upgrades of 1803. Microsoft uses the second day of each week to deliver update and upgrades, notably the second week of each month, the traditional “Patch Tuesday,” to issue security fixes.

Normally, the Home 1803 PCs would have been upgraded to the immediate successor, last fall’s Windows 10 October 2018 Update, aka 1809, long before now. But because 1809 harbored a destructive bug, requiring Microsoft to yank it from distribution and not return it for re-release until early 2019, three months behind schedule, it seemed the company simply gave up on 1809. According to what little outside information exists, in March Microsoft greatly slowed its delivery of 1809 to users of Windows 10 1803.

At nearly the same time, Microsoft decided to change its feature upgrade policy for Windows 10 Home (and again, perhaps Pro as well). That came in April, when the Redmond, Wash. developer announced the “Download and install now” (DaIN) option. DaIN will let users decide when, or even if, to download and install one of the twice-yearly feature upgrades.

But even as Microsoft turned over more control than ever before to Windows 10 Home users and those running unmanaged Windows 10 Pro PCs, the firm reserved the right to do things the old fashioned way. As the Windows 10 version powering a PC neared end of support – Microsoft never nailed down what “near” meant in terms of weeks or months – the company would intervene as it always did before, to upgrade the machine and keep patches flowing.

Assuming Computerworld has correctly interpreted Microsoft’s pronouncements of DaIN, the forcible upgrade and the 1803-to-1903 transition in particular – for Microsoft has been closed-mouthed about anything but the broadest strokes – this will become the new normal. Once Microsoft rolls out a feature upgrade, users will themselves decide whether to acquire and adopt it and if so, when they do.

If they decline a feature upgrade – by simply doing nothing, since DaIN shifts deployment to an opt-in approach – they will continue to run what now powers their Windows 10 PC. At or around the four-to-five-months-remaining mark Microsoft will take things in its own hands and start to upgrade PCs to keep them in support.

The following figure shows how this will work for the next several feature upgrades. Note: One of the side effects of DaIN and the forced upgrades is that users who do nothing will be moved to an annual upgrade schedule, half the frequency of before.

Window 10 1803-1903 rollout starts IDG/Gregg Keizer

When Windows 10 Home and Pro users do nothing, Microsoft will upgrade their PCs for them as their OS nears the end of support.

It’s not unusual for Microsoft to leave lots of unanswered questions. In fact, that’s the company’s modus operandi: It typically announces a new Windows process or policy but withholds the details, which eventually are gleaned from its actual operation or from documentation, or both.

For example, Microsoft has not specified how much in advance of a feature upgrade’s end-of-support date it will begin to forcibly upgrade customers. This is one of the biggest unknowns in DaIN’s methodology, but far from the only mystery.

Computerworld columnist Woody Leonard highlighted others, such as “Can you simply ignore the link until Nov. 10, and stay on 1803?” and “Will the ML pusher respect the metered connection setting?”

“Yes” is an unlikely answer for either. If Microsoft means to keep systems in support, letting users wait until the last minute would contradict that; if DaIN works as advertised, the metered connection setting won’t be necessary (and wouldn’t be allowed to interfere, one would think, with the forced upgrade during the last four or five months of support).

It’s unclear whether the DaIN decision was linked to the debacle of Windows 10 1809 or if Microsoft had decided to give upgrade control to users long before. The close timing suggested the latter, as it seemed that it would have been difficult for Microsoft to decide on, then implement DaIN in just four or five months.

There is no question, though, that DaIN, particularly the rule that lets Microsoft upgrade without user approval near the end of support, helped solve the 1809 problem. Rather than back everything up – getting 1809 onto 1803 machines months late, which would have a domino effect – it let Microsoft gracefully (well, relatively) skip 1809 and go straight to 1903, putting the schedule almost back on track.

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How Windows 10 users can dial back upgrades to just one a year

Microsoft had such grand plans for Windows 10.

Like any proud parent, the company wanted its offspring to succeed in life, to have opportunities galore. Go to an Ivy League college, land a good job.

To Microsoft, Windows 10 would be different than, better than, the other kids. It would improve itself several times a year, not just once every several years. It would be smarter, more helpful because it evolved faster and, so, adapted with the times. While its older siblings remained mired in their outdated habits, Windows 10 would rapidly learn new skills because it upgraded itself multiple times each year.

If Apple boasted that its OS X, later renamed macOS (like that fooled anyone), was smarter than Windows because it upgraded annually, Microsoft could brag that its Windows 10 was three times smarter than macOS because it morphed three times a year.

Or not.

Over the last nine months, Microsoft has so altered Windows 10’s effective upgrade cadence – the practical rate at which users will upgrade – that it’s no more ambitious a parent than Apple.

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How to make sense of Windows updates and upgrades with Microsoft’s new release dashboard

Making good on a pledge in November, Microsoft has unveiled a site showing the problems that prevent users from receiving Windows upgrades.

Dubbed the “Windows release health dashboard,” the list of blockers came out of a promise in late 2018 by Microsoft’s top Windows executive. Writing upon the re-release of Windows 10 October 2018 Update, aka 1809 in the firm’s four-digit yymm code, Mike Fortin, corporate vice president, said: “We will continue to invest in clear and regular communications with our customers when there are issues.”

Fortin was referring to bugs that Microsoft decided were significant enough to justify withholding one of the twice-annual Windows 10 feature upgrades from relevant machines. Rather than offer an upgrade that might cripple or degrade a system, Microsoft would simply refuse to give those PCs the update.

Even though Microsoft has practiced upgrade blocking for decades, it wasn’t until last fall that the company detailed the issues preventing some PCs from receiving a Windows 10 upgrade. Those issues were published on the Windows 10 update history support page and included short descriptions of the blocking bugs.

That page was a precursor to the health dashboard.

“The new Windows release health dashboard is now live, offering timely information on the current rollout status and known issues (open and resolved) across both feature and monthly updates,” said John Cable, director of program management on the Windows servicing and delivery team. “The new dashboard provides a single page for each currently-supported version of Windows so you can quickly search for issues by keyword, including any safeguard holds on updates, see the current status of each issue, and find important announcements.”

(Note: The dashboard, with the latest 1903 feature upgrade front and center, is here. Odd, nowhere does Microsoft label this as “Dashboard.”)

What the dashboard does

Each Windows 10 feature upgrade – from the initial release (1507) to the just-issued (1903) – has its own dedicated page on the dashboard, sometimes shared with an edition of Windows Server. Windows 10’s predecessors, including Windows 7 and Windows 8.1, and their Server colleagues, also sport pages. All are listed in the column at the left side of the display.

dashboard fig. 1 Microsoft

Clicking a version of Windows 10 – or one of the earlier operating systems – in the list on the left expands the item, letting users drill down.

Click to expand any Windows 10 feature upgrade at the left, or one of the earlier operating systems. Two items – “Known issues and notifications” and “Resolved issues” – appear.

The former not only itemizes existing problems in a summary near the top of the page but describes them in greater detail down lower. Among the details, many issues sport a line titled “Next steps” that outlines what action Microsoft has taken and when a fix can be expected. The company also makes recommendations – such as not to manually install the feature upgrade – shows possible workarounds that users can apply and in some cases, classifies the problem as a blocker halting upgrade distribution. Those are typically offered after a heading of “Note.”

As issues accumulate they are clumped together as months. Whether resolved or not, the problems remain as a record.

Fixed bugs are listed on a separate page reached by clicking the “Resolved issues” heading at the left. Notably, each resolution shows an addressed-by date and the support document(s) which first mentioned the problem and possibly later, the solution if it entailed another update from Redmond.

dashboard fig 2 Microsoft

Problems are described in detail, users are pointed to support documents that accompanied the fix and Microsoft explains what it or a third party did to address the issue. In this case, Microsoft released another update, one determined important enough to distribute outside the normal Tuesday schedule.

Although the dashboard may impress some users in its detail, veterans will recognize that most of the information has been copied from individual support documents – identified by the KB prefix, which stands for knowledge base – and pasted here. That’s by design.

“Finding out about known issues and whether or not they’d been reported, took time and effort,” Melissa Martin, a senior program manager, acknowledged in a video posted on Microsoft’s website. “It was a multi-step process. Known issues were included in the release notes or support articles, also known as KBs, and once an issue was resolved the original KB was updated with a link to the resolving KB.”

The dashboard is meant to serve as a one-stop shop for all that already-crafted information, Martin noted.

Update comms

Microsoft also billed the dashboard as a source of general information about the Windows upgrade process. “One of the most exciting features of the new Windows release health dashboard is the ability to see the current roll-out status, the status of known and recently-resolved issues, and news about Windows updates, all in one place,” said Martin (emphasis added).

dashboard fig 3 Microsoft

Recent feature upgrades, like 1903, prominently show update status information (the part shaded blue), including how users can currently obtain the build and if Microsoft has put it into general distribution.

Although Microsoft hasn’t said it aloud, it’s reasonable to assume that the company will use the status section of an upgrade’s page to communicate to commercial customers when testing can be wrapped up and broad deployment begun. That milestone, formerly marked by the labeling change from Semi-Annual Channel (Targeted), or SAC-T, to Semi-Annual Channel, aka SAC, is to be continued, Microsoft has said – but without the transition in nomenclature. (Microsoft ditched SAC-T earlier this year.) Unless Microsoft is misleading users about the dashboard’s purpose, the notification should appear here.

Also on the dashboard will be links to recent announcements related to updates and upgrades, practices and policies. Microsoft relies almost exclusively on blog posts for such announcements – even major proclamations made at the firm’s conferences are usually repeated in blog form – and are to be collected in the “Message center” area of the dashboard.

dashboard fig 4 Microsoft

In the ‘Message center,’ the dashboard displays the latest blogged announcements from Microsoft about updates and upgrades. Each feature upgrade’s page also offers links to the most recent posts.

For a finishing touch, the dashboard also links directly to the Windows 10 release information page, the official list of feature upgrades and their monthly cumulative updates. This page provides a host of nuts and bolts information about Windows 10, including build numbers, date of each update and upgrade, and perhaps most importantly, end-of-support deadlines.

dashboard fig 5 Microsoft

Microsoft dumps tons of information in the Windows 10 release information page. Putting it on the dashboard may get that information to more users.

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Microsoft slates skip-Windows 10 1809 upgrades for late June

Microsoft will start the process of skipping the problem-plagued fall 2018 feature upgrade late next month when it begins pushing Windows 10 May 2019 Update to PCs running version 1803.

The Redmond, Wash. developer has never jumped past one of its Window 10 feature upgrades.

“The Windows 10 April 2018 Update will reach end of service on November 12, 2019, for Home and Pro editions,” Microsoft said in support document last week. “We will begin updating devices running the April 2018 Update and earlier versions of Windows 10 in late June 2019 to help ensure that we keep these devices in a serviced, secure state (emphasis added).”

1809’s disaster led to upgrade regime change

Microsoft’s announcement that it would soon upgrade Windows 10 PCs to the latest version would not have been out of the ordinary prior to last week. Twice a year since 2017, the company has refreshed the OS with new code that added features and improved and enhanced existing ones.

Then came Windows 10 October 2018 Update, aka 1809, the latter the numeric label in Microsoft’s yymm format. That upgrade, which first appeared Oct. 1, 2018, harbored a known-yet-overlooked bug that destroyed user data. Within days, Microsoft pulled 1809 for retesting. It wasn’t until mid-January – three months later – that Microsoft again began to distribute the upgrade, albeit so cautiously that within weeks the company gave up on getting the new version to users because the next in line, version 1903, fast approached.

Near the end of April, analytics vendor AdDuplex reported, Windows 10 1809 had been installed on fewer than 30% of unmanaged Windows 10 PCs.

Earlier that month, Microsoft had announced it would upend its Windows 10 update regime for Windows 10 Home (and portions of Windows 10 Pro). Rather than force consumers to accept each feature upgrade on the company’s terms – Microsoft decided when each device was told to download and install a refresh – engineers would add “Download and install now” to this spring’s 1903, as well as refit 1803 and 1809 with the option.

With “Download and install now,” users can choose when to migrate from one version of Windows 10 Home to another. It also lets users decide whether to install a specific feature upgrade. If one does not apply the option by clicking on it in the Windows Update settings pane, the current feature upgrade is not to be automatically downloaded and installed on the PC.

The gist of “Download and install now” was that Windows 10 Home users could, for the first time, skip a feature upgrade by simply doing nothing. For example, with “Download and install now,” those running 1803 – the April 2018 Update that began rollout on April 30, 2018 – would be able to bypass the troubled 1809 by not choosing the option. (Under the previous rules, Windows 10 Home users would have been forced to upgrade to 1809 before later moving to 1903.)

Microsoft wouldn’t let people run a Windows 10 version indefinitely – that would have been a bridge much too far – but only when the current feature upgrade neared end of support date would Microsoft intervene, the company said in April. What wasn’t clear was when that trigger point would come.

Now users know.

When Microsoft regains control

“For Windows 10 devices that are at, or within several months of reaching, end of service, Windows Update will automatically initiate a feature update,” explained John Cable, director of program management, in a post to a company blog. “Starting this June, we will begin updating devices running the April 2018 Update, and earlier versions of Windows 10. We are starting this … rollout process several months in advance of the end of service date to provide adequate time for a smooth update process.”

Win 10 figure 1 download and install now IDG/Gregg Keizer

Microsoft will use its end-of-support exemption to “Download and install now” to upgrade PCs running last year’s 1803 to this year’s 1903, skipping the problematic 1809.

Windows 10 1803 is slated to exit support Nov. 12; a late-June beginning to the Microsoft-controlled migration to 1903 means that the company will have just under five months to shift the approximately 63% of Windows 10 Home users on 1803 (according to AdDuplex).

Whether by plan or through 1809’s misfortune, Microsoft has navigated through its perpetually mutating upgrade policies to arrive at a result many experts have long urged the company to seek: Annual Windows 10 feature upgrades.

If “Download and install now” works as Microsoft has implied, users of unmanaged PCs – those running Windows 10 Home as well as Windows 10 Pro not monitored by an organization’s IT or set by its user to defer updates – will upgrade once a year under Microsoft’s direction, as Figure 2 illustrates.

Win 10 figure 2 download and install now IDG/Gregg Keizer

If Windows 10 Home users now running 1803 do nothing, Microsoft should upgrade their PCs to 1903 this summer and fall, then follow with an upgrade from 1903 to 2003 (the feature update, not the year) starting in mid-2020.

Assuming AdDuplex’s numbers are accurate, even in the most general terms, a broad majority of Windows 10 Home PCs – and an unknown portion of Windows 10 Pro systems – will be on an annual upgrade tempo. In that, they’ll join enterprises, who since September have been able to easily slow to an annual pace thanks to longer support lifecycles for xx09 feature upgrades.

But what of those running 1809 on Windows 10 Home and Pro? What happens to them?

Computerworld doesn’t know. Microsoft won’t be immediately upgrading them without user approval, a fact implied in its statement that it would do so for the April 2018 and earlier refreshes.

Users can, of course, click on the “Download and install now” option when it shows up in Windows Update to board the annual-upgrade train. (Although Microsoft issued cumulative updates for Windows 10 1803 and 1809 that included the option, those updates were only available to users who actively sought them; Microsoft will automatically shove those updates to all users on June 11.) That presumes they hear about the option, then find the option, unlikely in many cases since people have been trained, more or less, to wait for updates and upgrades to arrive, not go looking for them.

Microsoft may not mind. If a third of the unmanaged-PC base isn’t on the every-spring upgrade track, so much the better to balance the load by keeping that group on the every-fall cadence.

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Enterprise Ethereum upgrades to boost interoperability, performance

The Enterprise Ethereum Alliance (EEA) today announced new and updated specifications aimed at helping developers create business-class blockchain networks that are faster, easier to use and capable of interacting with other distributed ledger networks.

The specifications include a brand-new set of APIs for moving compute functions off of Ethereum blockchains (known as off chain) to reduce computational loads and improve primary network performance.

The new APIs are intended to help blockchain programmers build in the privacy, low latency, and throughput needed for enterprise use cases in Fintech, supply chain, IoT and other business applications.

The Ethereum blockchain specification began as an open-source, public blockchain in the same vein as bitcoin, enabling the creation and trading of cryptocurrency over an open distributed ledger based on a peer-to-peer computer architecture. Over time, software vendors began to independently modify Ethereum for enterprise use by creating a permissioned version, or one that could be centrally administered while also offering higher transactional performance and user privacy.

The EEA was founded by various start-ups, research groups, and Fortune 500 companies to achieve commonality in how various business-class Ethereum blockchains were created so developers didn’t end up building dramatically different versions that could not interoperate.

The idea behind the EEA’s Off-Chain Trusted Compute Specification V1.0 is to remove burdensome compute intensive workloads from an electronic ledger (essentially a distributed database) to improve performance and storage capacity.

“It’s essentially to provide a high-level spec that could give different chip manufacturers a roadmap for designing an off-chain compute component if it’s desired by an operator of an Enterprise Ethereum platform,” said John Whelan, EEA chairman and head of digital investment banking for Banco Santander.

The 1.0 version of the Off-Chain specification has been been reviewed for compatibility with the following trusted compute methods:

  • Trusted Execution Environments (TEEs)
  • Zero-Knowledge Proofs
  • Trusted Multi-Party-Compute (MPC)

Temporarily moving some transactions off chain for computation elsewhere, and then returning a summary to the main chain, is a promising method for achieving such requirements, said EEA Executive Director Ron Resnick.

Along with new off-chain protocol, the EEA released version three of its primary specification, the Enterprise Ethereum Client; it now defines how to automate the permissions process and uses a new, faster consensus algorithm – proof of authority (PoA). Specifically, the EEA chose the Clique Proof of Authority algorithm.

A PoA consensus algorithm is similar to another blockchain validation protocol called Proof of Stake (PoS), which, as its name suggests, enables those with the highest monetary stake in a ledger to vote on validating transactions. The problem with PoS blockchains is the validator with the highest stake – and therefor greatest voting power – isn’t necessarily working in everyone’s best interest.

In a PoA consensus blockchain, users are pre-validated based on their identities before they are allowed to vote on what group of transactions – known as blocks – can be added to the ledger. To date, the most popular public blockchains – Bitcoin, Ethereum (Ether) and Litecoin – have used PoW as their consensus mechanism. That process is slow and costly because it requires each computer on the ledger to complete a complex mathematical equation before it can validate transactions.

By pre-validating through PoA, transactional flow is far faster, as computers are not taxed with solving eqations.

One Start-up, Devvio, claimed earlier this year that its consensus algorithm – very similar to PoA – could process eight million transactions per second, far outpacing conventional monetary clearance and settlement networks such as VisaNet.

The Enterprise Ethereum Client Specification V3, which is available as a free download, also standardizes the way different users handle permissioned networks onboarding, while also providing ways to build a wider range of permission systems for enterprise.

“There’s a lot of ways to build a blockchain-permission system and the idea with version 3.0 is to make it entirely smart-contract based,” Whelan said. “Up until now, depending on app, [it’s] been somewhat manual.”

The new permission protocol enables on-chain listing of node addresses, the creation of white and black lists for who should or shouldn’t be able to join a blockchain as well as who can write to a ledger or who should only have read capability.

One of the challenges with creating an enterprise system based on public Ethereum is a user address linked to a completely anonymous cryptocurrency wallet – a public encryption key. Unlike public blockchains, such as bitcoin, in the enterprise world an identity means something very different; It could be an organization, a business process or an individual user, and businesses are required by regulators to know their customers and be able to identify money-laundering schemes, among other things.

“Part of the EEA version 3.0 spec relates to how the on-chain identity system might communicate with an off-chain identity system. That speaks to the needs of an enterprise,” Whelan said. “Think about when you buy a piece of software from a big vendor – a Microsoft or an IBM. Identity management, permissioning and role-based controls – all that stuff comes built-in and in a well understood, reasonably standard form.”

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