Windows-as-a-service fail: Microsoft keeps customers in the dark
If Microsoft wants to treat Windows 10 as a service, it has a responsibility to its customers to provide accurate information about problems with that service. Over the last month, the company has failed miserably in that regard.
"Windows as a service" sounded like a good idea in 2015, when Microsoft released Windows 10. But after a terrible October, Microsoft's Windows 10 problems continued in November. Yesterday, an unknown number of devices running Windows 10 suddenly lost their activation status; the owners of those devices were told that they no longer had a valid digital license and were running a "non-genuine copy of Windows."
Those activation problems are now apparently resolved, but Microsoft hasn't offered an explanation or an apology. A company spokesperson declined to provide any additional details beyond a terse one-line statement: "We're working to restore product activations for the limited number of affected Windows 10 Pro customers," I was told.
In the Windows-as-a-service era, it's perfectly understandable that problems will occasionally crop up. But customers have a right to expect prompt, accurate notification when those problems occur, and Microsoft is failing badly in that responsibility.
For its enterprise customers, Microsoft long ago realized the need for timely and accurate status updates. If your organization is experiencing a problem with Office 365, there's a Service Status dashboard where you can find out what's wrong. Microsoft Azure customers have a similar Azure status dashboard and can even check the resolution of previous problems on the Azure status history page.
Windows 10 customers have no similar resources.
The closest equivalent for Windows 10 is the Windows 10 Update History page, which offers documentation concerning feature updates and cumulative reliability and security updates. That page shows that the Windows 10 October 2018 Update (version 1809) was released on October 2, 2018. Over the next four days, an unknown number of Microsoft customers downloaded and installed that update.
Several days later, Microsoft pulled that release from its update servers and took the unprecedented step of also removing the installation files from its download servers. At that time, the company revised the text on Update History page to include this note: "We have paused the rollout of the Windows 10 October 2018 Update (version 1809)* for all users as we investigate isolated reports of users missing some files after updating."
That note included a link to an accompanying blog post that tried to explain the cause of the bug. That post ended with this note: "We are committed to learning from this experience and improving our processes and notification systems to help ensure our customers have a positive experience with our update process."
Well, points for good intentions, but the company's behavior since then has exposed multiple flaws in the way it communicates with its Windows customers.
For starters, that page hasn't been updated since October 9, exactly one month ago. Anyone who checks that official resource would, logically, assume that Microsoft is still investigating those reports.
Microsoft says all of those issues were fixed in cumulative updates that were released on October 16 and October 20, respectively. But if you were one of the enthusiastic souls who downloaded and installed version 1809 in the first week that it was available, you have not received those updates. To get the fixes for what are undeniably serious bugs in a version of Windows 10 that was released through public channels, you have to add your device to the Windows Insider Program and choose the Slow or Release Preview Ring.
That's not right. Customers who are running an officially released version of Windows should not have to sign up as beta testers to get critical fixes.
And let's talk for a minute about the horrible communication around yesterday's activation issues. For hours after this issue began occurring, the only sources of information were a Reddit thread and a third-hand report from a volunteer moderator on Microsoft's Answers forum, quoting a report from "Microsoft Chat Support."
That's not right, either. And don't get me started on the Microsoft Answers forum, where overwhelmed volunteer moderators routinely paste boilerplate replies to customers reporting genuine issues. Good luck finding actual help there.
Mainstream customers running a released version of Windows shouldn't have to spend hours hunting down information about issues and updates. But in the absence of an official status dashboard for Windows 10, that seems to be the only option.
Opinion: The idea of delivering two full Windows 10 upgrades every year sounds great on paper. In practice, the Windows 10 upgrade cycle has been unnecessarily disruptive, especially to home users who don't have the technical skills to deal with those updates.