The rocky rollout of Windows 8.1 should serve as a reminder for consumers, software developers, hardware vendors, enterprise IT pros and Microsoft itself that a period of careful testing and analysis must precede the release and installation of an operating system update.
After it shipped on Oct. 17, Windows 8.1 in certain scenarios clashed with incompatible software, crashed due to outdated firmware and stumbled over unrecognized drivers.
Affected users faced different problems, including computers that couldn't boot up, peripherals that malfunctioned, software that couldn't be run and OS installations that couldn't be completed. Some issues have been resolved while others have not.
"With Windows 8 shipping for more than a year and almost being a beta release for 8.1, the nature of the problems people are experiencing [does seem] to be unusual," said Gartner analyst Michael Silver via email.
David Johnson, a Forrester Research analyst, concurred, saying that the number and severity of the problems is out of the norm. "It tells me they're making radical, deep changes, because they've had to," he said, referring to the long list of items Microsoft had to address in 8.1, including modifications to the user interface and to other areas.
It's particularly concerning that Microsoft had no one but itself to blame for the most serious incident so far, caused by a firmware issue on some of its own Surface RT tablets, which run Windows RT, the OS version for ARM-chip devices.
The people hit by that bug installed Windows RT 8.1 only to find the dreaded blue screen staring back at them when they tried to boot up their Surfaces.
It took Microsoft several days to issue a fix, and the response included temporarily removing the Windows 8.1 update altogether from the Windows Store.
"That should be the easiest platform for Microsoft to work with since it's an appliance with one model and it's their own product," Silver said. "It really leaves you wondering what's happening in the development and testing process."
The lesson for customers, partners and third-party developers is clear: Be proactive in analyzing OS updates and their compatibility with your products.
It starts with not taking at face value Microsoft's characterization of the update. People often assume that if it's labeled a point upgrade -- as in 8.1 -- then it probably includes minor changes that won't cause serious configuration problems.
That's a bad assumption to make, according to Michael Cherry, an analyst with Directions On Microsoft. "Look beyond the name of the update," he said.
Windows 8.1 isn't a traditional point upgrade, but rather closer to a heavier, broader service pack, Cherry said. Because of that, he slated it for careful testing and analysis, instead of hurrying to load it on his computers.
During that process, he discovered a deal breaker: His preferred security software isn't supported on Windows 8.1. He also flagged other compatibility problems. "I'm still in test mode," he said.
In addition to the Surface RT problem, other issues reported by customers and acknowledged by Microsoft include:
-- Windows 8.1 causes a variety of mouse-control problems for video games under certain circumstances.
-- Windows 8.1 can't complete its installation due to the presence on computers of certain outdated drivers or of incompatible software.
-- Some older PCs can't be updated from Windows 8 to 8.1 because the latter has some new hardware requirements.
Cherry pointed out that Microsoft is trying to speed things up on its end, aiming for a faster cadence of updates for Windows and other products, but that doesn't mean customers need to be in complete lockstep with the vendor.
"You need to have your own testing and procedures in place," Cherry said. That means doing hands-on testing, conducting research about the changes and contacting key hardware and software providers.
The Surface RT problem shows that Microsoft itself may be struggling with its own self-imposed faster pace of development. "Microsoft's testing needs to be up to the rapid release cadence," he said.
Ultimately, if Microsoft wants customers to have confidence in its products and in the accelerated update pace, it has to reduce the number of these situations.
"And when they occur, they have to be incredibly transparent about them: acknowledging them, providing workarounds and repairing them as quickly as possible," Cherry said, adding that offering detailed post-mortem accounts to customers is also important.
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