Microsoft antagonizes users with intrusive new Windows 10 upgrade tactics

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Says one approach was ‘a mistake’ even as users struggle to stop the OS from installing

Microsoft has gone aggressive — far too aggressive, say some — in its push to get users onto Windows 10, including setting the upgrade to automatically download through Windows Update, and on some PCs, blocking all other updates from installing and offering only the choice of upgrading to the new OS or delaying the deal for 48 hours.

Perhaps coincidentally, the latest stratagems coincided with a noticeable increase in Windows 10’s usage share, a measure of an operating system’s online activity, as tracked by Irish analytics vendor StatCounter.

Microsoft has acknowledged one of the ways it’s been plugging Windows 10, but said it was a mistake and backed off the ploy.

“As part of our effort to bring Windows 10 to existing genuine Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 customers, the Windows 10 upgrade may appear as an optional update in the Windows Update (WU) control panel,” a Microsoft spokeswoman said in an email Thursday when replying to Computerworld‘s questions. “This is an intuitive and trusted place people go to find Recommended and Optional updates to Windows. In the recent Windows update, this option was checked as default; this was a mistake and we are removing Windows 10 from Windows Update for users that have not reserved a copy of Windows 10.”

Microsoft was referring to a behavior noted by Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 users since at least mid-September, when some started seeing “Upgrade to Windows 10 Home” or “Upgrade to Windows 10 Pro” in Windows Update, the consumer- and small business-grade update service.

That item appeared in the “Optional” section of Windows Update’s listing of available patches and fixes on Windows 7 and 8.1 devices. Normally, updates pegged as Optional will not download to a PC — whether automatically or in a manual check — until the user has ticked a box.

However, recently — earlier this week according to users’ reports — Windows Update itself checked the “Upgrade to Windows 10” optional update as eligible for download and installation. Users with Windows Update set to automatically retrieve and install updates — the norm, and the setting recommended by Microsoft — or who did not examine the optional update list, were then served with the Windows 10 upgrade, whether they wanted it or not.

Although Windows Update wants to start installing Windows 10, clicking on the link “Show all available updates” is still visible, and will lead to other updates.

The actual upgrade process required — as it always had — some additional user interaction to complete, however.

Microsoft backs away from latest move

The checked-by-default “Upgrade to Windows 10” item was what Microsoft said was in error. Microsoft then removed not only the check from the box, but the upgrade item itself, from Windows Update.Computerworld confirmed with multiple users that the once-visible listing had disappeared from their Windows Update catalog by late Thursday.

Microsoft’s maneuver with the Windows 10 upgrade and Windows Update was reminiscent of a similar gimmick it used last month, when it began surreptitiously downloading up to 6GB of data comprising the Windows 10 upgrade to Windows 7 and 8.1 PCs. That data had been pushed to users, including those who had never authorized the move by “reserving” a copy of the free upgrade using the applet that Microsoft seeded to all Windows 7 and 8.1 devices starting in March.

But by pre-selecting “Upgrade to Windows 10,” Microsoft went a step further, not only downloading the upgrade bits to machines, but also triggering its installation, and thus the Windows 10 upgrade process. Users could cancel the upgrade once it began, the last line of defense for those who wanted to continue running an older edition, but many might have simply continued, trained to trust Microsoft’s update practices and assuming this was what they were supposed to do.

Even more alarming were reports from several IT managers that PCs that were joined to a domain — but set to receive bug fixes via Windows Update rather than through an enterprise patch management platform like Microsoft’s own WSUS (Windows Server Update Services) — were seeing this behavior, contradicting Microsoft’s previous statement that those devices would not be served the Windows 10 upgrade.

While the “Upgrade to Windows 10” listing appears to have been pre-checked only this week — the first reports reached Computerworld on Wednesday, Oct. 14, the day after this month’s Patch Tuesday, making it a prime suspect for Microsoft’s goof — the item had been showing up on at least some PCs as far back as mid-September.

Suddenly, Windows 10 gains ground

It may be a coincidence, but that timeline roughly corresponded to a significant uptick in Windows 10’s usage share. Prior to Sept. 21, the OS’s usage share growth had been in decline, with week-over-week increases falling slowly but steadily, probably because the pool of early adopters eager to get their hands on Windows 10 had been exhausted.

But beginning Sept. 21, Windows 10’s week-over-week usage share growth experienced a noticeable jump, with the gains peaking on Sept. 26, then falling off over the next seven days. When the OS’s usage share increases were graphed, they created a visible “wave” that first rose, then fell.

Yet serving the Windows 10 upgrade by pre-checking the optional download was not the only issue troubling users.

Some have reported that they have faced a more pernicious problem on their Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 machines. Those people have been presented with screens that state the Windows 10 upgrade will begin, and offered two alternatives: Start the upgrade process or delay it. Choosing the latter postpones the upgrade for two days, at which point the same screen returns.

Others have provided screenshots that showed Windows Update notifying them that the Windows 10 upgrade is ready to install. On those PCs, however, there was no link that, when clicked, let them view all available updates; the link was provided to users who had been given the upgrade bits through the checked-by-default optional “Upgrade to Windows 10” item.

The difference was crucial, in that sans a way to view all updates, users could only proceed with the Windows 10 upgrade. Refusing to do so meant that no other updates, including recent security patches, could be installed. That left those users on the horns of a dilemma: Either start the Windows 10 upgrade process — perhaps without the knowledge that it could be canceled — or leave the machine vulnerable to attack.

An unpleasant surprise

Josh Mayfield, the software engineer who created GWX Control Panel — a tool originally designed to make the “Get Windows 10” (hence GWX) applet go away after Microsoft forced it on all Windows 7 and 8.1 PCs — has been tracking the Redmond, Wash. company’s efforts to put the OS on machines, including the September introduction of the upgrade on Windows Update, this week’s change to pre-select that item for download, and the no-way-out screens some have seen recently.

And he’s not happy.

“Microsoft keeps surprising its users every step of the way,” Mayfield said in a Thursday interview, referring to the various methods the company has been applying to convince users to upgrade. “They all defy user expectations.”

By that, Mayfield meant the off-kilter behavior, whether seeding systems with the Get-Windows-10 applet — a move Mayfield said shared traits with malware — or offering users no choice but to upgrade or run a vulnerable OS, runs counter to what users have come to expect from Windows. As an example, he pointed out that the Get Windows 10 applet’s system tray icon can’t be right-clicked to disable notifications or prevent the tool from loading when the PC boots, both of which Microsoft recommends to third-party developers in its application guidelines.

The explanation for users seeing the more draconian Windows Update messages — that they have a choice only between upgrading or not being able to access the rest of the fixes posted to the service — may be along the same lines, said Mayfield.

He has confirmed, for instance, that if one “reserves” an upgrade with the Get Windows 10 applet, then cancels the reservation, Microsoft will at some point revert the machine to its original reserve-a-copy state. “Even though it’s possible to cancel your Windows 10 upgrade reservation in the Get Windows 10 app, doing so appears to put your computer in a state where it can actually download Windows 10 as a Windows Update,” Mayfield wrote in a long blog post.

upgrade-to-windows-10-part-2-100622377-large.idge_Jim Feltner
The owner of this PC can’t get to the usual Windows Update panel that shows other updates, and may believe the only option is to upgrade to Windows 10.

Mayfield theorized that those who are seeing the most aggressive messages in Windows Update or in separate dialogs were people who had at one time reserved a copy, then canceled that reservation. “The moment you click [to reserve an ungrade], you put the PC on a path to upgrading to Windows 10,” he said in the interview, even if the reservation was subsequently canceled.

The most likely reason for that odd behavior, said Mayfield, was Microsoft’s redistribution of some updates. “Microsoft has started to reissue some specific update patches, even if you already installed them before,” Mayfield observed. Among them: the original Get Windows 10 applet update (identified by Microsoft as KB3035583), or perhaps this one from last week.

Mayfield’s best guess was that follow-up updates to KB3035583 — which was, in fact, revised as recently as Sept. 24 — “flipped the bit” on the PC’s status vis-a-vis Windows 10 upgrade eligibility. “I think they may be doing doing this to get [the update] onto PCs that have just been reformatted, or on new PCs,” Mayfield said.

One of the eight Windows 7 or 8.1 machines Mayfield uses as his test bed reverted to a good-to-go-on-Windows-10 state in this fashion.

“[This] is our first evidence that Microsoft can change some of these settings via Windows Update,” said Mayfield.

A surge in interest for GWX Control

While Mayfield didn’t have answers to every Computerworld question about the Windows 10 upgrade behavior he’s seen, he knew one thing, if only because of a major increase in traffic to his website and a big bump in downloads of GWX Control Panel. “Something happened this week,” Mayfield. “Downloads and traffic at my site have exploded in the past couple of days, even though my program’s been around and sort of known for over a month.”

The number of GWX Control Panel downloads jumped eight-fold Wednesday, said Mayfield, and the site traffic increase was even larger. The most likely reason: Microsoft pre-checking the Upgrade to Windows 10 optional item in Windows Update.

While GWX Control Panel can handle many of the moves Microsoft’s made in pushing Windows 10 to existing PCs, it cannot yet solve the upgrade-now-or-delay conundrum some users reported. “I’m just using eight computers,” Mayfield said of his test bed, and he must wait until one of those PCs exhibits a specific behavior before he can try to figure out a work-around. None of his systems has displayed the two most blatant attempts to force an upgrade, the first the message that only lets the user postpone an upgrade, the second the Windows Update screen that doesn’t allow the user to view other ready-to-install patches.

He was confident that he would be able to modify GWX Control Panel to stymie the Get Windows 10 campaign once one of the eight PCs is put in either of those states.

Mayfield didn’t object to Windows 10 on its face, but like many others, wanted the upgrade timing to be hisdecision, not Microsoft’s. “I have legitimate reasons for wanting to stick with Windows 7 for the moment since several tools I rely on simply aren’t Windows 10-compatible yet. But Microsoft is literally trying to annoy me into upgrading to a new operating system that I’m just not ready for,” he said.

Nag, nag, nag

That’s been the attitude of many about Microsoft’s nag campaign. “I don’t mind the upgrade offers — what I object to is being forced into it,” said Jim Feltner in an email to Computerworld after finding Upgrade to Windows 10 in Windows Update. Like others, Feltner had never requested a Windows 10 upgrade, but still found his PC suddenly trying to download the bits. And even though the optional item vanished from his PC yesterday — probably when Microsoft withdrew it from Windows Update — any later attempt to install any other update, including those for his copy of Office 2010, triggered the start of the upgrade process.

“I don’t want Windows 10 [and I’m] tired of being on the bleeding edge of Microsoft’s testing,” added Feltner. “But it doesn’t look like there is a choice any more.”

The one consolation in all of this, said Mayfield, is that his source within Microsoft — who he said he trusted to give him the straight dope — has assured him that the company would “not upgrade your Windows 7 or Windows 8 computer to Windows 10 without your consent [emphasis in original].”

Thus far, Mayfield’s source has been spot on: No matter how much nagging Microsoft does, the Windows 10 upgrade has continued to require user interaction to complete. But some — perhaps the most cynical — have wondered for months, since Microsoft first put the Get Windows 10 applet on customers’ PCs, really, if Microsoft might dare to take that really drastic step.

The blow-back would be enormous.

One disturbing part of the latest measures Microsoft’s taken to amplify the Windows 10 upgrade, however, is its use of the Optional list in Windows Update: The company has a history — more prominent in the last year — of sticking an item there initially, then after some time digesting telemetry from customers to see if there are any showstoppers, switching the same item to “Important” status. That label means that every PC that has Windows Update set to automatically download and install updates — in other words, the vast majority — gets the update without lifting a finger to click on the screen.

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