Microsoft’s Windows 10 Security Update Plan

The headlines on luser news media are all about Windows 10 being the last ever release of Windows. Apparently Microsoft’s plan is to issue incremental updates thereafter. As those in the know, know, this has always been the way. Microsoft only releases a new version when it wants to flog it to the punters as the next great thing, and it does this by giving the latest snapshot of the code a new name (e.g. Windows 7, Windows Vista). Okay, there have been major step-ups; for example Window 2000 was the marketing name for Windows NT 5.0 (ditching some of the disastrous code in Windows NT 4.x), then came 5.1 – sold to the public as XP. Windows Vista was the next re-write; technically it was Windows 6.0. Confusingly to the punters, 6.1 was flogged as 7 and Windows 8.0 and 8.1 were 6.2 and 6.3 respectively. The reality is that OEM versions of Windows appear frequently, to track the new hardware as it turns up in production machines. It’s only the retail customers that believe in these retail versions. So what is Microsoft really doing?

Well, one effect of having a retail version of Windows is that every three years the punters stop buying new PCs, waiting for the next “version”. As Microsoft actually makes a lot more of its revenue from selling OEM licenses (bundled with PCs) than the retail versions, keeping the hardware manufacturers happy by killing off the boom/bust cycle is probably A Good Thing.

Is Microsoft getting a bit humble, acknowledging that hardware makers have a choice and Windows isn’t the only game in town? I don’t believe they do; the punters want Windows on their desktop PCs, and that’s that. So what is in it for Microsoft?

The clue is in what Terry Myerson was saying at Ignite 2015 in Chicago last week. The new version of Windows will feature greatly enhanced on-line update capabilities, with peer-to-peer patch distribution and a lot more. Patch Tuesday is to be abolished, with updates rolled out on a continuous basis. And all in the name of security.

Let’s play devil’s advocate here, and pretend that Microsoft has other reasons. First off, Patch Tuesday, the monthly release of non-critical Windows updates in an ordered manner, will become obsolete. The policy was originally formulated to avoid patches coming out willy-nilly at odd times in the month and catching IT departments off-guard; and now they’re going back to the old chaotic system. A broken update can knock your IT systems out at any time of the day or night. If this sounds like a recipe for disaster, don’t despair – according to Terry Myerson, patches will be rolled out to the lucky home users first, which means that it can be pulled and business won’t be affected if an update screws up. Enterprise customers will still be given the choice as to which updates they install; it would have been a hard sell to knowledgable IT people otherwise.

Is this actually going to improve Windows security? Peer-to-peer patch distribution? 24/7 patches coming from Redmond as soon as they’re presumed ready? What could possibly go wrong?

Rather than looking at this as a security fix, I think the policy should be taken in to consideration alongside Microsoft’s move towards licensing, rather than selling, software. They want a continual revenue stream and they don’t like their software pirated. Who does? By moving to an OS model that requires the host to be Internet connected and constantly patching itself, it becomes much harder for cracked versions of the OS or applications to exist. (Microsoft’s own applications, that is). Peer-to-peer updates will make updates harder to block. If a crack turns up in the wild, the next day a patch to kill it can appear from Redmond. And if your stop paying the license fee, your copy of Windows stops working. This last aspect isn’t being talked about openly. I’m just guessing here. But considering Microsoft’s penchant for licensed/rented software of recent years, Windows 10 being released with a mechanism that appears ideal for licence enforcement should they ever decide to move to the rental business model, I think it’s a good guess.

Or it could simply be that Microsoft is panicking over the less-than-warm reception the world gave Windows 8/8.1 and had decided that releasing new retail versions frightens the horses.

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