Microsoft yanks Windows 8.1 update for Surface RT after 'Blue Screen of Death' reports

Long-awaited update 'bricks' some tablets after it corrupts boot configuration data file

Microsoft on Friday yanked the Windows RT 8.1 update from its Windows Store after some Surface RT owners reported their tablets had been crippled.

In a message posted to a support forum where a customer had asked why the Windows RT 8.1 had vanished from the app store, a company representative said, "Microsoft is investigating a situation affecting a limited number of users updating their Windows RT devices to Windows RT 8.1. As a result, we have temporarily removed the Windows RT 8.1 update from the Windows Store."

The representative said that engineers were working on the problem, but did not provide a timeline for when the update would be reinstated or spell out the underlying issue.

According to online reports, some users had wrapped up the Windows RT update only to see the notorious "Blue Screen of Death" (BSOD) display and an error message stating, "Your PC needs to be repaired. The Boot Configuration Data file is missing some required information."

By corrupting the boot configuration data, the update effectively "bricked" the device, rendering it inoperable. Some users posted recovery instructions but they were long, involved and unlikely to be used by many.

The snafu was an embarrassment for Microsoft, as its Surface RT tablet, which debuted a year ago, has been the only Windows RT-powered device that has sold in any meaningful quantity.

While other reported problems with the Windows 8.1 update seemed to be rooted in device driver incompatibilities -- understandable considering the breadth of the Windows ecosystem, which relies on a bewildering array of hardware components and peripherals, each with its own vendor-built driver -- the fact that the Windows RT 8.1 update bricked the Surface RT, which has a single set of specific components and drivers, magnified the mistake.

As it stands now, Microsoft is the only vendor that has stuck with Windows RT; other OEM (original equipment manufacturer) partners have dumped the operating system from their lineups. Dell, the last besides Microsoft to support the tablet-specific OS, said three weeks ago that it had no plan to refresh its Windows RT tablets.

Dell pulled its final Windows RT tablet from sale in late September.

Some Surface RT owners were angry at Microsoft as much for not telling them that it had yanked the update as for issuing one with flaws.

"It sure would have been nice if the store would have told me this instead of me spending hours trying to 'troubleshoot my problem,'" wrote jmwallace77 on the support forum. "I have even spent hours to get to this buried message explaining [that] Windows RT 8.1 is being delayed."

But others, well, they were just plain mad.

"Just tell me how to return my Surface RT for full refund," said ArtFolden on the same thread. "I am fed up with it. It is still on warranty, and half the time it will not start up, and now it will not upgrade to 8.1, so I just want to return it."

Operating system update and upgrade glitches are not uncommon. After Microsoft and Apple issue a Windows, OS X or iOS update, a perusal of the companies' support forums almost always yields reports of troubles, including device bricking, crashes or unusable applications. It's rarer, however, when a firm pulls an update.

In April, for example, Microsoft urged Windows 7 users to uninstall an update that had generated BSOD screens. More recently, Microsoft had an extended run of problems with both security and non-security updates in August and September, many aimed at its Office suite, that experts called a "worrisome" sign of declining update quality.

Two years ago, scores of iPhone and iPad owners reported problems installing iOS 5, then then-new upgrade to Apple's mobile operating system, with errors near the end of the process. A smattering of those users said that the upgrade had bricked their iPhones.

Microsoft plans to start selling the Surface 2, a replacement for the Surface RT, on Tuesday, Oct. 22, at prices of $449 and up.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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