Rick’s undies are in a bunch because Microsoft forced his PC to update to Windows 8.1. Dave thinks this is just fine. But what’s the right answer: Should Microsoft (or any company) be able to force you to update to a newer version of its software?
Once a month, eHow Tech editor Dave Johnson faces off against Rick Broida, who writes about technology for CNET, PC World, and Wired. Follow along as they tackle this question from opposing corners.
Rick: For as long as I can remember, I’ve been ducking Windows 8.1. Not because I don’t want it (though I don’t, especially), but because when I first tried to install it on my Samsung Series 9 Ultrabook, nearly a year ago, it seriously hosed the machine. Screen resolution was mucked up, Wi-Fi didn’t work, iTunes wouldn’t run, and Microsoft gave me no way to roll back to 8.0. Needless to say, it left an extremely bad taste in my mouth. Eventually I was able to remove 8.1, and ever since, I’ve declined Windows’ update requests. Today, however, Microsoft took the gloves off: Windows 8.1 would be installed, like it or not. At best, I could delay the process four hours. Unacceptable.
Dave: There’s so much to unpack in that one little paragraph, I hardly know where to begin. Let’s start with your premise: That Microsoft should not be able to manage its product line as it sees fit. In reality, Big M (that’s what the cool kids call it) should not have to maintain and support a half dozen different code bases just because you want to stick with Windows 8.0 when the rest of the world has moved on to Windows 8.1, while there are still Windows XP and Windows 7 holdouts who think their operating systems should be supported as well. It’s extremely expensive to support an OS, and if Microsoft chooses to discontinue an older OS so it can better support the current one, they are entitled to. Of course, there’s not a lot Microsoft can do about Windows XP users. But if you’re on Windows 8, they can certainly push updates to you to move you along with the rest of the world. After all, it’s not a new product; it’s essentially a patch that updates the product you already own. How can you possibly object to being automatically upgraded to an improved version of the OS automatically, and for free?
Rick: I already explained my objections. But I’ll paint you the bigger picture: I have despised Windows 8 from day one. When 8.1 came along, I thought, “Okay, maybe this will make it less vomit-inducing.” So installed it and experienced the disaster I described above. Once I reversed the damage, no way in hell was I about to let it happen again. So I chugged along on Windows 8, and it was fine (because I booted into Desktop mode and installed a third-party Start button, effectively giving me back the Windows 7 operating system I wanted in the first place). Get it now? I was forced into an OS I didn’t want, then forced to upgrade it. Luckily, the fallout this time wasn’t as bad. You can defend Microsoft — sorry, “BM” — all you want, but all this amounts to a slap in the customer’s face. Ow, my face!
Dave: So here is where it gets interesting. We discussed this “backstage,” as it were, and a little homework shows you did not, in fact, need to install Windows 8.1, contrary to what you claim. This might get a little complicated, but try to follow. If you have Windows 8.0, Microsoft says that you are free to keep using it until 2016. But some months ago, you installed a Windows Update that was designed to automatically download the Windows 8.1 update for you. To be clear, you were not compelled by Microsoft to upgrade to Windows 8.1. But you have Automatic Updates turned on, so you installed an update whose purpose was to essentially make the Windows 8.1 Update into a recommended update that would install on its own.
Rick: This explains nothing, and in fact adds more points to my side. (Thank you!) How was I supposed to know that running Automatic Updates (which everyone knows you’re supposed to do) would invariably lead me to a forced 8.1 update? Let’s revisit the classic analogy: My computer is my car, and once a month it gets routine service. But Microsoft sneaky installed new axles, and this month I have to use new tires or the car will no longer run. In fact, if the new tires don’t work out — now the car pulls heavily to the left! — that’s just too bad, because I can’t have my old tires back. Or, to put it in language you’ll understand, it’s like George Lucas updating the first “Star Wars” trilogy and burning all the original copies. “Too bad, people who prefer the original and want the original! Screw you! My way or the highway!” There you go: Microsoft is George Lucas. Also Henry Ford, sort of.
Dave: I’m not saying that what Microsoft did was cool. In fact, Not Cool, Microsoft. You installed an update on people’s computers seemingly intentionally designed to circumvent their intention to avoid installing an optional update. Bad Microsoft! Obviously, Microsoft wants to move people to Windows 8.1, and people aren’t doing it on their own. So this update was intended to fix that, with or without your approval. I will grant you that the way Microsoft behaved was inexcusable. But what they did — make you upgrade to the latest version of an OS you actually own, is ethically sound. Your complaints are anecdotal: “Wah. I don’t like Windows 8.1 because my printer driver stopped working!” That can happen with any update, mandatory or otherwise. I’m saying philosophically, they should have the right to do it.
Rick: Well, I must admit, this shows real maturity. By admitting Microsoft was wrong, you’re also admitting you were wrong. Bravo! There’s hope for you yet, sir. Make no mistake, I have no problem with updates, just not when they’re forced upon me. It’s like the bad old days, when a “regular” automatic update required a reboot, and you’d step away from your machine for a while to discover that Windows had, indeed, rebooted itself — without your permission, and costing you whatever work you hadn’t saved. Microsoft often reminds me of the villains in old World War II movies: “You vill do vat ve say!” And we all know what happened to those guys. And, moving on to Cold War analogies, I suspect Windows 10 will exert exactly the same kind of iron-fist behavior. After all, look what it did to poor Windows 9.
Dave: Unfortunately, using technology means needing to adapt to change. Software never stays the same; even apps on your iPhone get updated regularly, and I don’t see you complaining that the makers of Angry Birds have no right to force a newer version of the game onto your phone. And they do that, all the time. Often apps are radically transformed with completely new interfaces and features in the process. That you don’t complain about that tells me you’re fixated anecdotally on one bad experience upgrading to Windows 8.1. And you can’t establish policy based on anecdotes, Rick. If you don’t, by your own admission, have a problem with Windows updates, you can’t object to Microsoft installing 8.1 on your PC — because then it’s simply a matter of semantics. If they had called it a Windows update, then to be logically consistent with yourself, you’d have to accept it without complaint. The bottom line? Like it or not, constant updates are the stock and trade of the software industry, and the pace of innovation is accelerating, not decelerating. Get ready for more and faster update cycles on all your software and devices. They’re coming.
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