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Windows 8.1 Preview Delivering Faster OS Updates

Microsoft appears to be quietly carrying out a faster update process with its Windows 8.1 Preview and Windows RT 8.1 Preview operating systems.

Users testing those preview operating systems, which were released on June 26, have already experienced two waves of updates to fix basic functionality issues. Those updates, which have addressed issues such as Windows Store problems, SkyDrive video playback problems and authentication issues, among other matters, are released separately from Microsoft's regular monthly security patch updates.

These "nonsecurity" or functionality updates are arriving through the Windows Update service in Windows 8.1 Preview and Windows RT 8.1 Preview. If a user has the automatic update service turned on for those OSes, then many of these updates will install automatically, without alerting the user or requiring any user action, in many cases. That's a good thing, provided that no further problems result from the patch.

Updates Released So Far
Microsoft doesn't seem to list or announce its updates for Windows 8.1 Preview and Windows RT 8.1 Preview, apart from what quietly drops into a local user's Windows Update list. Here's a perhaps incomplete list of the nonsecurity updates that have already been released for those OSes so far in either late June or early July:

  • KB 2863204 Search charm performance in Windows 8.1 Preview
  • KB 2864247 Windows Store apps crash in Windows 8.1 Preview
  • KB 2863312 Compatibility update for Windows RT 8.1 Preview and Windows 8.1 Preview
  • KB 2864713 Robustness of data files in Windows 8.1 Preview
  • KB 2863721 Windows Store app not in correct category in Windows 8.1 Preview
  • KB 2863723 SkyDrive video playback in Windows 8.1 Preview
  • KB 2864806 Google account sign-in problem with some applications in Windows 8.1 Preview
  • KB 2863846 Authentication issues with Windows Store apps in Windows 8.1 Preview

Microsoft traditionally has issued its nonsecurity updates each month, alongside its security patches. However, its previous nonsecurity update releases perhaps weren't as vital to software functionality as the updates listed above. In addition, these nonsecurity updates for Windows 8.1 Preview and Windows RT 8.1 Preview are now decoupled from Microsoft's monthly Patch Tuesday security release cycle. For instance, the release dates for the KB articles listed above are dated June 26 and July 2.

Microsoft's FAQ on automatic updates for Windows 8 indicates that the update release cycle is now somewhat less set in stone.

"We usually release important updates once a month," the FAQ states. "However, updates could be released at any time."

A somewhat new kind of update in the mix for the Windows 8.1 Preview and Windows RT 8.1 Preview is called a "compatibility update," as described in KB 2863312 above. A compatibility update will exclude incompatible applications or it will alert a user about potential issues via three kinds of blocks. A "hard block" prevents the application from running on the system altogether. A "soft block" will indicate broken functionality to the user. There's also a "driver block" that will stop an existing driver from running. KB 2863312 currently adds hard blocks on applications such as Parallels Desktop 4 and AVG Internet Security 2013, preventing them from being installed on Windows 8.1 Preview systems.

The Rapid Update Future?
The Preview releases are test software, so these updates may just reflect the sorts of problems encountered with beta software. Another possibility is that Microsoft may be carrying out a more rapid update process that could serve as a future model for Windows releases.

Microsoft suggested last month that it plans to update its software once a year for its newer products, including Windows 8. That annual update cycle is a lot faster than Microsoft's previous routine of releasing new software updates once every three years for its enterprise software. Exactly how IT pros will cope with the more rapid testing and deployment cycles implied by such an annual release cycle isn't exactly clear. Microsoft still plans to release service packs, though -- at least for some software such as Exchange Server.

Possibly, organizations may trust Microsoft's internal engineering processes sufficiently that they may not test Microsoft's security updates before applying them each month. However, trusting entire OS updates may be a different matter. Gartner analyst Michael Silver has suggested that Microsoft has no record of securing IT trust with OS updates. Usually, OS updates undergo months of testing before getting rolled out.

In any case, testing could become moot if the rather quick update release cycles seen for the Windows 8.1 Preview and the Windows RT 8.1 Preview take hold. IT pros likely won't have the time to test such rapid releases, which are arriving monthly so far.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is online news editor for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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