FAQ: Microsoft's new IE auto-upgrade scheme explained

Who gets what, how to block the Web browser upgrade, and more

Last week Microsoft announced it is changing how Internet Explorer upgrades on Windows users' PCs in 2012. Taking users out of the equation, Microsoft said, will make the Web, and them, safer.

The move is a major departure from past practice, which required users to explicitly approve IE upgrades.

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While experts have applauded the change, users aren't so sure: Most of the comments appended to Computerworld's story of last week were negative. Maybe they're not sure if it affects them, or when it will reach their PCs.

Or they just don't like Microsoft monkeying with their machines.

We've assembled some of the most pressing questions -- and answers, naturally -- about IE's auto-upgrade to help readers sort it out for themselves.

Will my copy of Internet Explorer get upgraded?

That depends. It will if you're using Windows XP and still running IE6 or IE7 and you have automatic updates switched on in Windows Update and you haven't clicked "Don't Install" on earlier, explicit upgrade offers. In that case, Microsoft will automatically turn your IE6 or IE7 into IE8. The same goes for Vista and Windows 7 running IE7 or IE8: If you have automatic updates switched on in Windows Update and you haven't out-and-out declined earlier offers, you'll get IE9.

What if I just ignored the IE upgrade pitches I've seen previously on my screen?

Microsoft said "customers who have declined previous installations" will not get the auto-upgrade, so it sounds like unless you definitely said "No" you're in the upgrade pool. That means if you simply closed the offer windows without making a choice, or you've been religiously clicking on "Ask me later" since then, you're upgrade fodder. Microsoft made those offers via Windows Update for IE8 starting in April 2009, and for IE9 beginning in April 2011.

When will Microsoft upgrade my copy of IE?

Good question. Australian and Brazilian users will be first in line, and will see their browsers upgraded some time next month. As for everyone else, Microsoft isn't saying. "We will take a measured approach, scaling up over time," Ryan Gavin, head of IE marketing, said last week. Microsoft later declined to state a timetable for users in the U.S.

Will I get a warning of some sort before they start upgrading in my country?

We don't know. But in the past, Microsoft has given corporate customers 30-day warnings before serving up major upgrades like Windows and Office service packs. It could do the same prior to firing up IE auto-upgrades.

I'm using Windows XP. Does this mean Microsoft will upgrade my browser to IE9?

No. IE9 won't run on XP; that's a decision Microsoft made during its development, claiming that it was unwilling to compromise on the browser to make it run on the decade-old OS. Auto-upgrade doesn't change that. The newest browser that will run on XP is 2009's IE8. And that's the way it'll stay.

How is this different than what Microsoft's done in the past?

It's no longer asking permission. Although IE upgrades have always been processed through Windows Update, until now they have required user consent before they're installed, even if the user has had automatic updates fully enabled. Microsoft's new scheme will, in effect, treat IE upgrades like any security update, in that -- with several exceptions -- they will be applied without that the assent demanded earlier.

I want to keep my current version of IE. How do I do that?

You can opt out ahead of time. To do that, you can download either the IE8 Blocker Toolkit or the corresponding one for IE9, and apply them now. You need to open a command prompt in Windows to put the block in place. If you're running IE6 or IE7, download the IE8 Blocker. Running IE8 and want to keep that? Download the IE9 Blocker. Microsoft has published instructions on how to enable the block on those download pages.

I'm not sure I'm up for the Blockers' complicated steps. Anything for me?

Yes. Microsoft's said it will publish "Fixit" tools -- automated one-click utilities -- that institute IE8 and IE9 blocking. They'll be released in January 2012. We assume the Fixits will be available either before or alongside the launch of upgrades that month in Australia and Brazil. You may want to bookmark the Fixit website, then check there in January.

Another way to avoid auto-upgrade is to turn off Windows Update's automatic updates setting, although because that also switches off hands-free patch download and installation, it's a blunt instrument. To turn automatic updates off in Windows 7, select the Start menu, then "All Programs," and next choose "Windows Update." In the ensuing window, click "Change settings," and then under "Important updates" select either "Download updates but let me choose whether to install them" or "Check for updates but let me choose whether to download and install them."

Does the new upgrade practice change how Microsoft delivers security updates?

Nope. IE patches, which Microsoft ships every other month, are not affected by auto-upgrade, Microsoft said in a reply to questions last week. The new plan only impacts how the company moves users from one edition of IE to another. In that way, Microsoft's scheme differs from Google Chrome's current "silent update" service -- and the one Mozilla is building for Firefox -- in that those browsers' much more frequent upgrades are also used to deliver security patches.

I manage tens or hundreds of even thousands of corporate PCs. Is Microsoft about to make my life a living hell?

No. Microsoft won't deliver the auto-upgrades via WSUS (Windows Server Update Services), the de facto patch and update mechanism for business.

"If you're using WSUS to manage Windows Update, you will not need to worry," promised Stephen Rose, a Microsoft communications manager, in an entry on the company's IT-oriented Springboard Series blog last Thursday.

Additionally, said Rose, administrator rights will be required for auto-upgrade, so if the IT department has locked down workers' PCs by giving them only user rights, they won't be able to install IE8 or IE9. Assuming an employee has administrator rights, there's nothing to stop them from manually downloading a new version of IE and installing it: Not even the Blocker Toolkits prevent that.

Will the auto-upgrade to IE8 or IE9 change my default browser setting?

No, said Microsoft. "As always, when upgrading from one version of Internet Explorer to the next through Windows Update, the user's home page, search provider, and default browser remains unchanged," pledged Gavin.

But that was a fair question: Microsoft took heat from Norwegian browser maker Opera Software two years ago for hiding a default browser change in the small print of IE8's upgrade. Two months later, Microsoft bowed to the pressure and changed IE8's setup so that it did not switch it to the default browser when users selected the faster "express settings" option.

I read that Microsoft will add an auto-upgrade opt-out setting to future versions of IE. Will it add that same capability to existing editions? After all, even IE6 is still supported.

Computerworld asked Microsoft this question, and they declined to answer, saying only that, "We don't have any additional information to share on this."

Why is Microsoft doing this?
Security, the company said. "Our goal is to make sure that Windows customers have the most up-to-date and safest browsing experience possible, with the best protections against malicious software such as malware," said Gavin in a blog post last week.

Okay. What Gavin didn't say was that IE has been losing share at a precipitous rate for years now as users deserted older editions of IE for rival browsers, first Firefox and more recently Chrome. Auto-update will bump laggards onto a newer version of IE, one that Microsoft certainly hopes is more palatable to users and so gives them more reason to stick with its browser, not Google's or Mozilla's.

Microsoft has pinned hope on IE9 -- and before that, IE8 -- as the edition that will stop such defections. So far, usage share metrics by companies like Net Applications and StatCounter have shown little or no change in the decline of IE.

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@ix.netcom.com.

Read more about browsers in Computerworld's Browsers Topic Center.

This story, "FAQ: Microsoft's new IE auto-upgrade scheme explained" was originally published by Computerworld.

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