Software

Windows 10: The 10 biggest controversies and surprises in 2016

From unwanted upgrades to snooping on users, the biggest storms that whipped up around Microsoft's flagship OS this year.

Microsoft revised Get Windows 10 prompt.

Image: ZDNet / Microsoft

Windows 10 has been dogged by various controversies since soon after its release.

Anger about Windows 10 rarely dies down for long, and this year Microsoft has faced backlashes about the OS's approach to privacy, upgrades and user control.

Here are the biggest storms that whipped up around the OS in 2016, and one example of how Microsoft sometimes does listen to its users.

'Tricking' users into switching to Windows 10

Early in the year, Microsoft faced a fierce backlash over changes it made to get Windows 7 and 8 users to upgrade to Windows 10.

The company was accused of effectively tricking people into upgrading to Windows 10, by changing the design of the user prompt for its Get Windows 10 app, the software which scheduled upgrades from Windows 7 and 8.

Microsoft altered prompt so that clicking X to close it caused the user to effectively agree to a scheduled upgrade to Windows 10, rather than dismissing the upgrade as had previously been the case. The change put Microsoft in violation of its own user experience guidelines for developers on how to design dialog boxes.

Following widespread criticism, Microsoft reversed the decision and changed the pop-up so clicking X once again dismissed the upgrade.

It wasn't the only unpopular decision Microsoft made this year, during the company's aggressive campaign to grow Windows 10's userbase. The firm also made Windows 10 a recommended update for Windows 7 and 8.x users, which resulted in the upgrade process automatically initiating on most home machines.

Forced updates

Microsoft continues to face pressure from a group of Home users who want more control over when updates are applied to the OS.

The Home edition of Windows 10 doesn't allow users to defer installing updates to the OS. While Microsoft argues this approach helps keep users' machines up-to-date, some users are calling for greater control over when updates are applied—without having to resort to hacks.

SEE: Windows 10: The smart person's guide

While Windows 10 was updated to give Home edition users more control over which time of day updates are applied, this falls short of the level of control sought by the group petitioning Microsoft. This group wants the Home edition to be able to defer updates in much the same way that other most editions can.

Most other editions of Windows 10 can defer updates for at least several months to allow any early issues with patches to be ironed out. Those running Windows 10 Pro or Enterprise enjoy even more control via the Windows Update for Business feature, which allows users to put off new feature releases for up to eight months and security updates for up to four weeks, as well as to temporarily pause upgrades and updates.

Bugs, bugs and more bugs

The downside of not being able to say no to updates is that sometimes they can break things.

At various points throughout the year there have been complaints of PCs going wrong after applying the latest Windows 10 updates.

A glut of complaints emerged in the wake of the Windows 10 Anniversary Update this summer. Following the major patch, groups of Home users reported frozen systems and broken webcams.

Fresh updates continue to cause problems for users, most recently Windows 10 PCs not being able to connect to the internet.

Cut features

While Microsoft uses updates to add new features to Windows 10, these same patches have also been used to remove useful settings.

Following the Windows Anniversary Update this summer, it became a lot more difficult to disable Windows 10's built-in virtual assistant Cortana. The change saw a simple off switch in a sidebar replaced with a less-obvious, multi-step process or the need to use specific admin tools.

Microsoft also altered the Windows Pro edition to prevent users from editing Group Policy settings to stop ads for apps showing in the Start menu and on the lockscreen, although these ads can still be disabled by individual users.

More and more ads

Windows 10 has had adverts for Windows Store apps since it launched, but over time Microsoft has made these ads more visible.

In February, Microsoft began advertising Windows Store apps using the Windows 10 lockscreen, with users reporting seeing ads for the game Rise of the Tomb Raider.

And following the Windows 10 Anniversary Update, new installs of Windows 10 began to show double the number of ads for Windows Store apps in the Start Menu.

Luckily there are various options for disabling these ads, from ad-removing software to Settings tweaks.

Calls to stop snooping

Fair or not, Windows 10 has acquired a reputation for snooping on its users.

The question of whether Windows 10 tramples user privacy was raised again this year, with the Electronic Frontier Foundation saying the OS forces users "choose between having privacy and security".

Much of the argument revolves around the large amounts of data Windows 10 collects by default from users of the Home edition. This includes information about how Windows and Windows apps are used, what you type, your contacts, your location, calendar appointments and more. If the virtual assistant Cortana is enabled, this data extends to web browsing history, voice commands and even more information about your activity.

While Home users can only drop the level of data collection to "Basic" level, users of Enterprise, Education, and IoT core editions are able to reduce data collection further, to what Microsoft calls the "Security" level. Microsoft says that Home users need this higher level of data collection to ensure that Windows Update keeps their OS patched. However the EFF doesn't accept that Microsoft couldn't reduce telemetry further for Home users.

Microsoft's release of high-level statistics about how people were using Windows 10 at the start of the year also prompted accusations of intrusion, although this was strongly rebuffed by some industry watchers.

State interventions

It wasn't just Windows 10 users holding Microsoft's feet to the fire over Windows 10, with national regulators wading into some controversies.

In France, the chair of the National Data Protection Commission claimed that the amount of user data collected by Microsoft's flagship OS violated the French data protection act and highlighted the "seriousness of the breaches".

Microsoft now has until January next year to change how Windows 10 collects data about users in order to comply with the act. If Windows 10 still doesn't comply after this point the company could be fined up to €150,000.

In Russia, the Federal Antimonopoly Service launched an investigation into whether Microsoft had abused its dominant position in the PC operating system market, following accusations that Microsoft's practices are unduly favoring its Windows Defender anti-virus.

The inquiry, prompted by a complaint by Russian security company Kaspersky Lab, will probe allegations that Microsoft has reduced the period for third-party developers to test whether security software is compatible with Windows. The complaint alleges this shorter period doesn't leave enough time to ensure third-party software will run on updated versions of the OS.

Windows 10-only hardware

Those wanting to stick with Windows 7 on new PC hardware had their hopes dashed by Microsoft at the start of the year.

Microsoft announced that Windows 7 and 8.1 will not be updated when running on PCs powered by upcoming processors. These processors include Intel's Kabylake family, AMD's Bristol Ridge, and Qualcomm's 8996/Snapdragon 820 architecture—as well as their successors. These newer machines will need to be running Windows 10 to continue to receive updates.

There was some good news for those running Windows 7 and 8.1 on Intel Skylake-powered computers however, as Microsoft reversed an earlier decision to prematurely curtail updates and said these systems would continue to be patched until support officially ends—2020 for Windows 7 and 2023 for Windows 8.1. There are still some restrictions, however. To be eligible to continue receiving all updates, the Skylake PC will need to be on Microsoft's list of approved machines.

Cortana loves Bing

There were cries of foul play when Microsoft decided to tie Cortana to its Bing search engine and Edge browser.

In April, Microsoft updated Windows 10 so all searches via the Cortana-driven search box in the Task Bar would only be routed to Bing and Edge.

Microsoft said the change was necessary to ensure the best possible experience for Windows 10 users.

Bye bye Wi-Fi Sense

Sometimes Microsoft seemingly does listen to the backlash, as suggested by its decision to remove the controversial Wi-Fi Sense feature from Windows 10.

In May this year, Microsoft excised the feature, which drew heavy criticism for sharing access to Wi-Fi networks with a user's contacts.

However, Microsoft said the decision to drop the feature was driven by people seldom using it, rather than as a result of the negative reaction, some of which may have been unjustified.

More about Windows 10

About Nick Heath

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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