Patching Metro apps on a wing and a prayer

Microsoft just began pushing updates to key Metro apps. But without a description or Knowlege Base article, users have no idea what's being changed and why

Whenever we get a passle of Windows patches -- security updates, bug fixes, performance and stability improvements, rollups -- they're almost always accompanied by Knowledge Base articles. Granted, the KB articles are of varying quality and, at times, veracity. But at least we have some description of the changes that have been or will be made to our systems, a generally accepted numbering system to track and correlate them, and frequently an easy way to back out wayward changes using the Control Panel's View Installed Upates applet.

The Windows 8 Metro "Windows Store" apps have changed all that, and not for the better.

Case in point: Just a few hours ago my Windows 8 machines started sprouting the number "1" on their Windows Store tiles. Venturing to the Windows Store and tapping on the Update (1) link brought up a tile that said there was an update available for the Productivity apps: Metro Mail, People, Calendar, and Messaging. Try as I might (and have I looked everywhere imaginable) I couldn't find a description of the update. There's no KB article, no explanatory blurb in the Windows Store, no version number, nary a hint as to why Microsoft was patching the key Metro communication apps or what the fixes might bring.

I looked all over the Web and found a number of sites that contain what purports to be a "changelog" describing the changes in this release. It looks like this:

Group email messages by conversation to keep your inbox organized.

Respond to meeting invitations directly from your inbox.

Get things done more quickly with faster performance in all apps.

Experience better reliability and usability based on feedback from customers like you.

That's hogwash. Nearly three months ago Microsoft's now dearly departed Windows chief (soon to be Harvard lecturer) Steve Sinofsky published a nearly identical list on the Building Windows 8 blog. The newly released versions of Mail, Calendar, People, and Messaging would support a "conversation view of your inbox," Steve said, "accepting and declining invitations in email." That was a description of the fix pushed in early October, before Windows 8's general availability.

It isn't just the Metro apps. Last month the Surface RT got a firmware patch, delivered via Windows Update, that doesn't have an associated KB article -- and no official documentation of any kind that I can find. Microsoft ran a warning on the update page: "A firmware update is available for your PC / We will restart your PC to install the update. Take a moment to save your work and make sure your PC's battery is charged before you continue." But that's it. To this day, it doesn't appear as if anyone knows what firmware changes took place.

Microsoft has a Surface support page with this reassuring note: "When a Surface hardware (also known as firmware) update is available, you'll see a notification on your Surface. When you get the notification, follow the on-screen instructions to update Surface using Windows Update."

At least one Windows RT user reported on the Microsoft Community "answers" forum that the firmware update bricked his Asus Vivo Tab. He didn't receive a response.

The Bing-based Metro apps -- News, Weather, Finance, Travel, and Sports -- were updated last week. There was no KB article, no tracking number, no version number, no way to back out the changes. The Xbox Music and Video apps were updated earlier.

We've seen a bunch of changes to the Windows 8 built-in programs over the past couple of months -- including a firmware patch, for heaven's sake -- without a shred of documentation.

It's like Microsoft is saying, "Trust us to update the Metro part of Windows 8." Kinda makes you feel warm all over, doesn't it?

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.