Microsoft's decision to pre-load Windows 10 upgrade sans consent is ill-advised

Dispenses with 'industry practice' claim about downloading upgrade to PCs whose owners didn't ask for bits

windows 10 upgrade notification

Microsoft late last week backed off the claim that its pre-loading of Windows 10 on devices whose owners had not reserved the free upgrade was "an industry practice."

When asked to cite some examples Friday, Microsoft instead issued a revised statement that omitted the phrase.

"For those who have chosen to reserve their upgrade of Windows 10 and those that have Windows Update automatic updates enabled, we may help customers prepare their devices for Windows 10 by downloading the files necessary for future installation," a spokeswoman said in a Sept. 11 email response to several questions. "This results in a smoother upgrade experience and ensures the customer's device has the latest software."

Earlier that same day, Microsoft had asserted, "This is an industry practice that reduces time for installation and ensures device readiness," when it confirmed accounts that Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 users had found large amounts of data representing the Windows 10 upgrade on their PCs -- even though they had not requested the free upgrade.

Some applications do pre-load updates in the background -- Google's Chrome is one example, Mozilla's Firefox another -- before triggering the install at the next launch, but operating systems have never taken that tack.

Although Microsoft's retreat from the industry-practice claim was minor in itself, it was more notable for another reason: As the latest instance in a cycle of company-to-customer-communication omissions and missteps.

Those have ranged from difficulty explaining who would get the free Windows 10 upgrade and who would not -- ultimately, Microsoft decided that it would not amnesty customers running counterfeit copies of older editions -- and a months-long wait before it announced that users would receive updates and upgrades free of charge for a decade, to an under-explained new feature that shares upload bandwidth to provide for others faster downloads and a mandatory data collection practice that gives Redmond telemetric information on how the OS and applications are used and run.

Also irksome was Microsoft's installation of a nag-and-notification app on virtually all consumer-grade Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 devices -- and on some business PCs as well -- that pitched Windows 10 and asked users to "reserve" a copy prior to, and after as well, the July 29 launch.

It was one of several ways Microsoft reduced the expected load on the Internet when it shipped Windows 10, allowing the company to queue customers and then feed them the upgrade bits in multiple waves.

While some griped that they were being force-fed advertisements for Windows 10, overall the consumer reaction leaned toward the positive, with many upset that they were not seeing the app or its reserve-a-copy pitch. (Businesses were less thrilled when they saw non-domain-joined PCs getting the app.)

Microsoft did publicize the Get Windows 10 app on June 1, the same day it began triggering it on most devices, but that was several months after word circulated of the practice.

It did nothing of the sort before starting to pre-load the OS upgrade on Windows 7 and 8.1 machines whose owners had not reserved a copy. While the rationale may have made sense within Microsoft -- whether for the expressed purpose of speeding up the upgrade process, as it claimed last week, or with an implied agenda of boosting adoption, which smacked of duplicity to some -- it struck a nerve with the power users whom Microsoft has traditionally relied on as its ambassadors.

"Big mistake on Microsoft's part. If people didn't opt-in for the upgrade, they should not have to download it," opined Adam Forcount in a comment appended to Computerworld's story last week about the background upgrade downloading practice. "This kind of behavior from Microsoft is extremely disheartening. If I had wanted someone else to decide how I should use my computer, I would have bought an Apple product."

Forcount may have cited Apple as a reason. In mid-2014, Apple caught flak for automatically shoving U2's new album, Songs of Innocence, to customers' iPhones, Macs and other devices. The promotion was quickly raked over the coals by people with arguments similar to those Windows users have raised about the background download of Windows 10. Less than a week later, Apple issued a tool that deleted the album from iTunes accounts and so stopped the synchronization with devices that led to the downloads.

Apple had announced the free U2 album at a September 2014 event where it unveiled the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, but had not asked for customers' approval before dropping it in their iTunes accounts.

That has been Windows 7 and 8.1 owners' biggest beef -- that they weren't told of the download beforehand or asked to approve or decline it before it landed on their disk drive.

The failure to ask led to other complaints from people served the Windows 10 upgrade. Not surprisingly, among the first to notice the I-did-not-ask-for-this were people who have data caps mandated by their Internet service providers (ISPs), particularly those who rely on a cellular connection to the Internet. When they exceeded their allotments -- and were charged for the extra or saw their bandwidth throttled for overuse -- they began to look for answers.

Windows 7 does not include a "metered" connection feature -- a way to tell the OS not to download extraneous data, including all but priority updates -- as does Windows 8.1. And even the latter's implementation is far from foolproof.

Because Wi-Fi networks are set as non-metered by default, anyone tethering their Windows 8.1 PC to a smartphone, which turns the handset into a Wi-Fi hotspot, can exhaust their mobile data cap without as much as a by-your-leave. The same applies when the ISP's connection is plugged into a Wi-Fi router -- a common practice in homes and businesses both -- or when the connection comes through an Ethernet cable jacked into the PC, which can't be set as metered at all.

Cable companies that also provide Internet service, like Comcast in the U.S., typically use Ethernet to run from the modem to the personal computer. Coincidentally, Comcast last month began experimenting with data caps in several U.S. markets.

Others were unhappy that the 3.5GB to 6GB Windows 10 upgrade invaded what to them was their (storage) space, especially when space was limited because of the device or was nearly filled with their content. Microsoft's own entry-level Surface Pro 3, for example, comes with just 64GB of solid-state drive (SSD) storage: The Windows 8.1-to-10 upgrade could represent as much as 10% of its capacity.

Some users groused that they had also wasted time trying to figure out why their already-slow Internet connections had recently been even slower, going so far as to accuse others in the house of hogging bandwidth, only to realize after the fact that the slow-down had been generated by Microsoft's download. On a 1.5Mbps (megabits-per-second) DSL connection -- not uncommon outside city limits in the U.S. -- for instance, a 3.5GB download would take nearly 6 hours, a 5GB download 8.5 hours, when slurping up the whole capacity.

Not everyone running Windows 7 or 8.1 has received the unannounced Windows 10 upgrade. When asked whether it was downloading the gigabytes to all eligible devices or just some -- and if the latter, what criteria was used -- Microsoft did not directly answer. Instead, the revised statement included the word "may," as in "For those who have chosen to reserve their upgrade of Windows 10 and those that have Windows Update automatic updates enabled, we may help customers prepare their devices," Microsoft said [emphasis added].

But the pool is certainly large: Most consumers and small businesses that rely on Windows Update have left the service's automatic updates enabled -- the default setting recommended by Microsoft, which downloads and installs updates without further approval -- and so may see the upgrade land on their drives.

Microsoft risks damaging Windows 10's reputation with moves like this. Alone, it may not amount to more than a small hill of beans, but reputation is a mysterious, fragile thing. Miscues -- whether in communication, policy or practice -- are often cumulative. And since Microsoft has repeatedly told customers that Windows 10 will be its last major upgrade -- from here on out, updates and upgrades will morph the OS into a service model -- it cannot simply skip a numeral, as it did from Windows 8 to 10, to put the past behind it without looking foolish.

The simplest way to fix this particular problem -- others are more entrenched in how Microsoft sees it revenue future or emblematic of a service delivery scheme -- would be for Microsoft to explain its thinking; change the behavior to only download after user consent, which is what customers understood to be the plan; and, like Apple did last year, offer a tool that scrubs the upgrade binaries from affected PCs.

Users will eventually move to Windows 10; other than switching to an OS X-powered Mac, or an even more drastic move, changing to Linux, they will have little choice in the long term. Pushing unsolicited upgrades to users for short term benefit -- perhaps to meet Microsoft's self-imposed goal of 1 billion devices by mid-2018 -- is short-sighted.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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