Software

Windows 10 October 2018 Update file-wiping bug: Does Microsoft need to slow the updates?

Despite the testing, a showstopping bug still made it through to this major Windows update. Time to slow the pace of change?

If your PC runs Windows 10 an update is always just around the corner.

That pace of change is less of an issue if the updates are benign, however, it becomes a problem when those enforced upgrades wreak havoc on the user's computer.

A case in point is the most recent Windows 10 October 2018 Update, the latest biannual feature update to be launched for Microsoft's flagship OS. Whereas a major new release of Windows used to arrive every few years, Windows 10 instead receives regular feature updates, as Microsoft moves towards the Windows-as-a-service model.

On Saturday, Microsoft was forced to pause the rollout of the October release, after a number of users reported the update had wiped files from their Documents and Pictures folders — in some cases resulting in the loss of years of images and work.

SEE: Windows 10 power tips: Secret shortcuts to your favorite settings (Tech Pro Research)

If you look at Microsoft's track record when it comes to the stability of Windows releases, it certainly is mixed.

The previous major feature update, the Windows 10 April 2018 Update, released some 20 days later than expected, after near-final builds had to be amended to resolve a blue-screen of death bug. Even then, the release version still harbored some nasty surprises for some users.

The Fall Creators Update was less problematic, but still launched with a bug that removed the Start Menu for some users. 2016 was also a tricky year for Microsoft, with the Windows 10 Anniversary Update triggering numerous complaints of frozen computers and broken systems in the wake of its release.

And similar to this latest upset, the very first major update to Windows 10, the November Update also had to be pulled from Microsoft servers nine days after its release in 2015, due to a bug affecting a "small number of users".

Every major software release for PCs is hugely complicated. Each PC differs in both the hardware and software installed on the system, and forecasting every interaction an OS might have is impossible.

But when it comes to releasing these major feature updates, Microsoft does seem to be struggling with a notable number of unforeseen problems.

The question is why?

Some place the blame partly on the frequency with which Microsoft releases new Windows updates.

Earlier this year, a group of Windows IT admins wrote an open letter to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, saying they were suffering from fatigue due to the pace at which the feature updates were released, adding they found the new features of limited use relative to the inconvenience of updating machines.

The letter was sent by Susan Bradley, a Microsoft-certified Small Business Server and Security Most Valued Professional who moderates the patchmanagement.org email list. Speaking to TechRepublic, she says the fact such a significant bug was able to slip through to the October 2018 Update demonstrates Microsoft needs to slow the pace of change.

"I am still of the belief that the six month feature release cadence is too much. These issues are being missed," she said.

Not only does the frequency of updates make it difficult for IT admins to keep up without switching to a Long Term Servicing Branch (LTSB) option under the more expensive Enterprise edition, she said the pace of change is also "too disruptive for Microsoft as well".

Ahead of release, the Windows 10 October 2018 Update underwent months of testing by the millions of people running pre-release builds under the Windows Insider Program. And the file-wiping bug in the October update was even flagged by an Insider in Microsoft's Feedback Hub, some three months before the build was made available. But so many bugs are reported that highlighting a bug doesn't guarantee the problem will be fixed.

"There is evidence that these issues were reported but in the noise of the upvoting, it was missed," said Bradley.

"On a daily basis I get told to place my feedback in the feedback process but it's a venue where you get no real acknowledgement, other than 'we're working on it', that they truly understand the problem.

"Often one has to hope that a large company with a premier support contract suffers your same fate in order to get bugs fixed. It flat out doesn't work as a venue for bugs on released product."

Why the Insider program is missing these bugs is a larger question. Is the number of Insiders too small compared to the wider install base for Windows 10? The most recent figures suggest there are about 15 million Windows Insiders compared to more than 700 million devices running Windows 10.

Or is it the case that the unselective nature of the open-to-all Windows Insider program means it skews heavily towards a particular demographic, whose machines aren't representative of the broad mix of devices running Windows 10 in the wider world? Perhaps the simple answer is there are too many bugs being filed for Microsoft to screen, even with the help of automated tools and user voting to highlight the worst offenders.

Some might argue that this latest mishap for Windows 10 isn't a big deal. The bug won't affect the vast majority of Windows users, given Microsoft slammed the brakes on the October 2018 Update rollout before it was automatically pushed to the general public.

Yet it's still an extraordinary occurrence for Microsoft to halt such a high-profile launch less than a week after the update was declared available.

Microsoft describes Windows 10 as a service "which means it gets better through periodic software updates". But that service will become a much harder sell if the marginal improvements are overshadowed by catastrophic side-effects.

UPDATE: Microsoft has since issued a fix for the file-wiping bug to Windows Insiders and updated the Windows Feedback Hub to allow testers to flag the severity of bugs they report.

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Image: Nick Heath / TechRepublic

Read more about the Windows 10 October 2018 Update

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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