Automatic Updates Give XP Users New Headaches

Microsoft has been issuing security patches and other updates for Windows XP over the past few weeks-only to have those fixes cause new problems.

Microsoft Corp. has been issuing security patches and other updates for Windows XP over the past few weeks—only to have those fixes cause new problems.

XP users said the updates cause systems to become unstable and some device drivers to stop working.

"The patches are coming with such unbelievable frequency these days that its very hard to tell exactly what is being changed and which patch is causing the problems," said Jason Perlow, president of Argonaut Systems Corp., a systems integrator in Tenafly, N.J., that runs and deploys XP for companies.

Perlows company advises users to turn off XPs automatic update system and set it to only notify the user when an update is available. The Automatic Update feature in XP allows users to set up their computers to automatically download critical operating system updates and security fixes. "Microsoft could be releasing patches to patch the patch—who knows what theyre doing at this point," Perlow said.

He added that Microsofts patches do not contain sufficient information about their nature. "They could be modifying core DLL files and not telling you," Perlow said.

Jim Cullinan, lead product manager for XP, in Redmond, Wash., agreed that the information released with the patches does not offer that much detail so as not to confuse and overwhelm users with technical information. "Most users did not want specific detail of source code changes," Cullinan said.

As a result of the automatic downloading of the updates, Perlow said he had seen device drivers stop working for USB (Universal Serial Bus) devices and other things as well as a lot more crashes and lockups.

"My Windows XP workstation ... had been working problem-free for about two months now, but after an automatic software update, my Microtech USB CompactFlash/Smartmedia Card reader stopped working," Perlow said.

"People look to me for help. Im not supposed to get stumped by trivial problems like this," Perlow said. "As an IT professional, I feel helpless and in an out-of-control situation and, as an end user as well, that sure doesnt feel good."

Another IT professional, based in California, who runs Windows XP systems for testing purposes, said that after installing the latest batch of XP security patches on four systems running XP Professional, all the systems became unstable.

"Im seeing system failures requiring a reboot about once a week on each machine," said the user, who requested anonymity. "Before this latest batch of patches, I hadnt had to reboot any of these boxes. They were as stable as Windows 2000 Service Pack 2 or my Linux 2.4 systems."

Microsofts Cullinan said six critical security fixes had been issued for XP so far. These dealt with vulnerabilities in areas from the Universal Plug and Play subsystem of XP to Windows Media Player, remote assistance, and a cumulative patch for all users of Internet Explorer 5.5 and 6.0. "But we have not heard feedback in any large way of things like drivers that dont work following the download of patches and updates. We do a lot of testing and work before these patches are released. They are designed to fix, not break, things, so there should be no change in the drivers as a result of them," Cullinan said.

Other IT professionals err on the side of caution when it comes to automatic updates in Windows. Frank Calabrese, manager of desktop strategy and services for Bose Corp., in Framingham, Mass., and an eWEEK Corporate Partner, said that while Bose is in the early-phase testing of XP and is not looking at stability issues yet, not all updates are always beneficial.

"The problem with Microsoft Automatic Updates is that it updates all the Microsoft components," Calabrese said. "We have issues today where we are reticent in accepting automatic updates like for Internet Explorer because we havent done the integration testing, and the upgrade version may be incompatible with some of our applications."