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Gates plans invisible, automatic updates for WinXP users

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Most of the reporting of Bill Gates' WinHEC keynote on Monday has focussed on the Tablet PC announcement, but you'd also do well to take a look at what he had to say about Windows Update. In WinXP it's back, it's bigger than ever, and this time, maybe, resistance is futile.

Bill says: "One of the key elements for us is Windows Update. We've decided that we're going to have all defined drivers on the Windows Update site. And we're making Windows Update something that's invisibly easy for the user to go up and get the latest improvements." Here he's talking about a signed driver regime where Microsoft tests and approves vendor-produced drivers, and aside from them going out with the hardware, they get posted in the giant driver pile that Microsoft intends to morph Windows Update into.

Aside from drivers, Gates sees this Revenge of Windows Update as hosting all "the latest improvements... patches, new drivers, whatever it is, that's part of the PC experience." And of itself that's cool, if you think of it as a giant store where it's easy for you to get any kind of tool, wrench or widget you're going to need, and where all of this stuff has been thoroughly checked, and is of the highest quality.

But personally, I'd be a lot happier about this if the storekeeper didn't have those funny eyes. Microsoft's first take on Windows Update sent quite a few corporate IT people ballistic, and also dragged forced registration in as well. People who wanted to install service packs on multiple machines weren't best-pleased about having to do it online to Update, one machine at a time, and there was a period where Microsoft seemed to be deliberately choking off availability of downloadable or CD delivered service packs. Which is how my doppelganger, William H Spam III, came to be a registered user of Office 97, but that's another story.

Microsoft eased up considerably on that particular approach in Windows Update 1, but Bill's description of Windows Update 2 sounds awfully like more of the same. And the Windows XP beta code has visit Windows Update nagware in it that seems to pop up at every reboot, without giving you any obvious mechanism for telling it to go away, and not to come back.

So in Microsoft's ideal world the storekeeper with the funny eyes (obviously Microsoft doesn't think of itself in quite those terms) gets practically all XP users to sign up at the Update site. The storekeeper and his little elves then get to decide what drivers and updates are good for you, and they set them up so they install invisibly, without your even being bothered by them (although this presumably will have a lot to do with where the defaults are set in the shipping code).

This still won't play in the business world, where IT managers still won't be wanting their users installing (or having installed on them, without them knowing) stuff they haven't approved and decided to roll out themselves. So there'll still have to be some kind of escape hatch for them. From the home user's perspective too there's a certain amount of sense in making sure the updates aren't too invisible and too automagical, but Microsoft likely won't agree. Microsoft has been known to roll out service packs that break the software worse rather than fixing it. You might also want to maintain some control over which of the things you thought were apps decide to turn themselves into a part of the operating system.

Basically, you have to ask yourself if you think the storekeeper is a fit and proper person to be making these decisions for you. He has a long history of thinking he knows best what's good for you, and he has all sorts of other motivations that you might not agree with. He did say quite recently that he'd be using a signed driver system with a regularly updated revocation list to stop you copying digital music you didn't own, and by making himself custodian and approver of the hardware drivers, he might somehow also find himself relating this to the hardware mods he's planning in the future Secure PC.

All of these things and more, registrations, passports, product activation might end up in separate boxes that don't exchange data with one another, but the storekeeper is a serial control-freak, so how sure can you be about that? ®

More reasons to worry

MS plans 'Secure PC' that won't copy pirated audio files
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