5 Microsoft Windows automatic updates from hell

Auto update at your peril: These five Patch Tuesdays blew up in the face of Windows users

Digital Vision

Catastrophic Microsoft auto updates of 2012

Some people still think advanced Windows users should turn on automatic updates. I disagree. Microsoft's automatic updates are for chumps -- and I've been saying that, in print, for a decade.

Of course you need to apply patches sooner or later. Some even need to be installed immediately, but those are almost always released "out of band" to great fanfare in the computer press.

If you're savvy enough to be reading this rant, you're smart enough to set Windows to "Notify but don't download" and wait until the millions of patch beta testers have installed auto updates, then crashed and burned.

Here's a look at the real Microsoft auto-update stinkers of 2012.

April 10, 2012: Tax returns won’t print

Just before tax day, Microsoft released a botched security patch (MS12-025/KB 2653638) that kept many TurboTax users from printing their tax forms. The patch went out over Windows Update on Black Tuesday, April 10. Tax returns were due the following Monday, April 16. Microsoft didn't even acknowledge the problem until Friday, April 13, when it finally pulled the patch.

If you knew to look for a workaround and could find it, it was available on the Microsoft site from April 13. If you didn't, all you knew was that you couldn't print your tax returns: "You may briefly see a Generating Document message but the paperwork never prints," according to Intuit.

Microsoft didn't fix the botched patch until June 12.

May 8, 2012: Duqu patch installation failure

A massive patch known as MS12-034 (with many associated KB numbers) left some Windows customers who used automatic updates wondering what had gone wrong. Some found that the installer failed with an Error Code 0x8007F0F4. When they checked the KB 2686509 support article, they were instructed to delete a keyboard log file. Many people couldn't find the file.

The instructions in KB 2686509 go on for pages, explaining how to modify and move keyboard layout files -- this in response to a known, anticipated error thrown off by the installer. Microsoft finally got around to creating a FixIt that made the patching easier. But lots of unsuspecting Windows consumers wasted hours trying to make heads from tails out of this automatically updated disaster.

May 21, 2012: Yellow alert that won’t go away

For reasons that defy imagination, somebody rolled out three old .Net patches via Automatic Update in the middle of the month. KB 2518864 (MS11-044, June 2011), KB 2572073 (MS11-078, October 2011), and KB 2633880 (MS12-016, February 2012) failed to install on many Windows XP and Server 2013 systems that had automatic updates turned on. Some folks reported no problems at all. But many kept getting a yellow alert icon that said, "Some updates could not be installed."

In the end, we discovered that the failed updates appeared on the automatic update list because Microsoft had originally scheduled, then pulled, yet another .Net update, MS12-035. When that update got pulled, three old ones put themselves in the auto update queue.

Oct. 26, 2012/ongoing: Windows 8 patches and firmware upgrades

There have been dozens of patches to Windows 8, Windows RT, the various Metro apps, and other Windows 8-affected products, including IE10. Windows RT firmware has been updated twice.

Windows 8 patches are documented with knowledge base articles, and security patches receive Microsoft numbers, as we're accustomed to. The problem is that there is very little documentation about what has been done to the other components. There's no change log for Metro apps -- even key apps. The RT firmware patches are basically undocumented, aside from very broad statements from Microsoft.

Have there been problems with Win8 automatic updates? Most certainly. Microsoft's documentation on the Servicing Stack Updates, KB 2771431, lists eight problems, all of which are apparently fixed by the latest Servicing Stack.

Dec. 11, 2012: Disappearing fonts

Microsoft sent the buggy MS12-078/KB 2753842 patch out on Dec. 11. The patch was supposed to fix a security hole that allowed hacked TrueType or OTF fonts to take over your computer. The next day, CorelDraw customers started complaining that many large-size fonts wouldn’t render correctly. There was a great deal of confusion until someone discovered that by backing out the patch, fonts would work again.

The bug in the patch was then discovered to also cap or zap fonts in QuarkXpress, FlexiSign, and other special-purpose layout programs, Flash in design mode, PowerPoint, and by some accounts, Excel. Even though Microsoft admitted on Dec. 14 that it was "investigating these issues," it didn't pull the patch until later, re-releasing it on Dec. 20.

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