Users Left Holding the Bag

By Don Reisinger  |  Posted 2009-12-02

Microsoft Leaves Users Waiting for Fixes for Windows Black Screen of Death

For too long, users have been forced by default to deal with the many security problems that plague the Windows ecosystem. Whether because of malware, flaws in how Microsoft built Windows or any other number of things that can occur in the course of using a Windows PC, it seems that users have to look to their own knowledge and resources to maintain at least a basic level of security.

It has gotten so bad that today, no anti-malware program is capable of targeting and removing every malicious file that can potentially impact a Windows installation. Even with several anti-malware tools installed, not a single Windows user is absolutely safe. And in order to come closer to achieving that lofty goal, the user needs to be diligent, always keeping in mind that if trouble strikes, it could very well be a battle with a malicious hacker.

Perhaps that's why the controversy over the Black Screen of Death has taken on such a life of its own in the past 24 hours. Just one day ago, Windows users experiencing a Black Screen of Death generally believed that the problem began with updates from Microsoft that they had installed.

But after investigating the situation, Microsoft responded late Dec. 1 saying it wasn't at fault. And Prevx, the security company that initially suggested that Windows updates were to blame, has already backtracked. Once again users are left wondering what they can possibly do to keep from loosing time, data and even possibly cash to this glitch for which Microsoft apparently doesn't want to take responsibility.

The beginning of the story

But let's take a step back. The Black Screen of Death issue started after a security company called Prevx said, "Black screen woes could affect millions" of Windows users. The company wrote in that Nov. 27 blog post that the Black Screen of Death caused users to lose the "desktop, taskbar, system tray [and] side bar." They were left with a black screen.

Prevx made it clear in that post that it believed that the causes for the Black Screen of Death were numerous.

The fix that it offered on its site wouldn't address all the causes for the Black Screen, the company cautioned, but it would "probably" work for those whose "black screen woes began in the last two weeks after a Windows update or after running any security program (including Prevx) to remove malware during this time." In an update to that post, the company said it found two Windows patches-KB915597 and KB976098-that "seem common to the issue arising."

The Buck Keeps Passing

Prevx finished off its post by saying the "black screen condition is the only sign of the problem, leaving nontechnical users with a major challenge." Its fix, after all, only addressed some of the causes for the black screen. All others received no fix from Prevx.

After Prevx cited Windows updates as the possible cause for black screen troubles, Microsoft started digging. The company said in a Dec. 1 statement that it had heard rumors about its updates affecting computers and that it would look into it immediately. After investigating, Microsoft wrote a sharp rebuttal to claims that its updates caused the Black Screen of Death.

It's not our fault

"We've received questions about public reports that customers might be experiencing system issues with the November Security Updates (which some are referring to as 'Black Screen' issues)," Microsoft wrote in a blog post. "We've investigated these reports and found that our November Security Updates are not making changes to the system that these reports say are responsible for these issues."

Microsoft also said it had worked with customer service to determine how widespread the Black Screen of Death really was. According to the company, it wasn't nearly as bad as Prevx and some other security experts had said.

"We've also checked with our worldwide Customer Service and Support organization, and they've told us they're not seeing 'black screen' behavior as a broad customer issue," Microsoft wrote.

But it was the next statement that might cause some who are either experiencing Black Screen of Death issues or might soon experience them to worry. Microsoft wrote that "it's impossible to know conclusively what might be causing a 'black screen' in those limited instances where customers have seen it." It said the problem might be caused by some "malware families, such as Daonol." But aside from that, the company didn't say it would seek the root cause of the problem, nor did it say it would be releasing a fix. Instead, Microsoft took the opportunity to tell users to work with its customer service group in the future.

Users Left Holding the Bag

"This underscores the importance of our guidance to customers to contact our Customer Service and Support group any time they think they're affected by malware or are experiencing issues with security updates," Microsoft said. "This enables us to determine what might be happening and take steps to help customers by documenting new malware families in our MMPC malware encyclopedia or documenting known issues in our security bulletins and the supporting Knowledge Base articles."

Prevx apologizes

After that report was released, a stunning announcement came from Prevx: The Windows updates weren't the problem.

"Having narrowed down a specific trigger for this condition, we've done quite a bit of testing and retesting on the recent Windows patches, including KB976098 and KB915597, as referred to in our previous blog," Prevx wrote late Dec. 1. "Since more specifically narrowing down the cause we have been able to exonerate these patches from being a contributory factor." The company then apologized to Microsoft "for any inconvenience" its previous blog had caused.

What about us?

After Microsoft refused responsibility for the black screen outbreak and Prevx was done apologizing to Microsoft, the average Windows user was left wondering what to expect next. Would Microsoft release a patch to prevent the problem from ever happening again? Would Prevx find a way to make its own fix work for anyone affected by the Black Screen of Death? At this point, neither outcome seems likely.

Based on what Microsoft said, it seems that the company has no interest in pursuing the Black Screen of Death. It has simply written it off as a malware problem. Prevx has said that the root cause might be related to the way Windows stores string data in the registry. But in no way did it claim its solution can fix all problems related to the Black Screen of Death.

And so, once again, it's the users who need to worry about the impact this latest outbreak will have on their computers. It might not be as serious as the Blue Screen of Death and, if Microsoft is right, few users have been affected. But considering a security company has spent so much time investigating the problem and Microsoft has done its part to find a root cause, doesn't it make sense that the software giant would want to issue a patch so no users face that black screen?

For now, Microsoft seems unwilling to admit there is a problem. There's still no guarantee that Windows hasn't caused the issue. And all the while, Windows users are wondering what, if anything, will be done to resolve it. It's a sad situation.

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