Microsoft has created a mirage for users of Windows 10 Home, crafting an illusion of partial control over updates and upgrades, researchers have concluded.
In a paper presented at the Workshop on Usable Security - part of the Network and Distributed System Security Symposium - in San Diego on 24 February, researchers from University College London analysed Windows 10 Home's update and upgrade processes, and the behaviours of experienced users, 93 of whom completed a long survey.
The researchers' goal: assess how well the Windows 10 update model fit the needs of users.
"[Windows 10 Home] may give users the impression of having a greater degree of control over restarts than they actually do," Jason Morris, Ingolf Becker and Simon Parkin, said in their paper.
ZDNet's Ed Bott reported on the research earlier in the week.
Unlike other versions of Windows 10 - notably Pro and Enterprise - Home does not allow users to defer the constant security updates and twice-a-year feature upgrades. Instead, their PCs automatically download and install the updates and upgrades.
Microsoft has couched this behaviour, which was a dramatic break with decades of Windows' practice, as critical for securing the OS and keeping it up to date with new features, functionality and technologies.
At the same time, Microsoft uses this compulsory practice to ensure there are millions of users serving as de facto quality control testers.
Microsoft added settings to reduce what it believed were the primary pain points for Home users, notably the restarts required to complete most updates and upgrades.
In mid-2016, for example, Microsoft added "Active Hours" with the 1607 feature upgrade; the setting blocks out time when mandatory reboots are not to occur.
But the no-restarts-during-this-block-of-time setting doesn't take into account actual PC usage. Windows 10 Home defaults to 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Active Hours, just as do its more sophisticated siblings, Windows 10 Pro and Windows 10 Enterprise. (That means required restarts are not to take place during those hours.)
The trouble, of course, is that while the block excludes reboots during traditional business hours - justifiable for Pro and Enterprise - Windows 10 Home is not a business-grade OS. As its name implies, it's the consumer, aka at-home user's, operating system.
And consumers don't use their PCs solely, or even much, during business hours: Just three of the 93 survey participants, or about three per cent of the total, restrained the use of their computer to the default Active Hours.
All but six, or six per cent, said they typically used their device on weekday evenings, prime time for Windows 10 reboots according to the default setting.
Just as importantly, the researchers reported, most users don't even know they can restrict reboots to specific blocks of time. Only 28 per cent of those surveyed knew of the setting.
And of those who did know of Active Hours, 38 per cent hadn't bothered to change the default despite knowing their work patterns conflicted.
The bottom line, according to the researchers: Nearly half - 47 per cent - of those surveyed reported that their computer had unexpectedly restarted to finish installing an update or upgrade.
Additionally - and this should give Microsoft pause - the users were largely mystified by elemental aspects of updates and upgrades even though the Windows' maker has gone to great lengths to explain, again and again, the differences between monthly updates, security and otherwise, and the twice-annual feature upgrades.
On average, users thought updates were less frequent than in reality, with nearly half saying they believed updates were delivered every two months or less. (In the real world, Windows 10 Home typically receives two updates each month and three in many months.)
Nor were they well-versed in the update vs. upgrade difference; 71 per cent thought updates addressed problems while 87 per cent said updates added new features at least occasionally. That, the paper stated, implied "participants thought software updates add features more frequently than they fix errors."
Those gaps in users' information perplexed them at best, worried them at worst. One example put the problem in terms most Windows users could relate to. "Half of participants agreed that the longer a restart took, the more concerned they became," the researchers said.
"Participants did not appear to recognise and appreciate the implications of different types of updates (monthly cumulative vs. feature).
"The cues used by Windows are subtle, but the implications are potentially significant. As part of our own research, we measured the time taken by a cumulative monthly update in our virtual environment. Where this took 12 minutes, the feature update took 12 times longer."
Users' unmet expectations - the feature upgrade is taking forever, or at least far longer than the last security update - was a danger both in the abstract (their perceptions of Windows) and the concrete (prematurely bailing from an upgrade).
And other failings contributed to users' anxiety, the researchers asserted. "Windows gives neither an estimate before nor during the updating process, and our own research showed the progress indicator can progress unevenly," they said.
Morris, Becker and Parkin concluded that there is a disconnect between the controls Microsoft offered in Windows 10 Home and what users needed. "We think Windows is not sufficiently explicit in seeking user permission for updates and restarts," the threesome argued.
Microsoft should take another crack at mitigating update and upgrade issues, the researchers added.
For one thing, restarts should never occur when the PC is being used, which can happen when users defer an impending reboot, then pick a future execution date and time themselves.
"We believe that restarts should not occur if the system is in active use," they said.
And the Active Hours feature, which they called "flawed," needs a different approach. "Prompts to users act to shape the installation of updates, but not the shaping of preemptive controls such as active hours," Morris, Becker and Parkin argued. "Relating adaptability to visibility, the user is in control with no control."
The researchers urged Microsoft to make use of its machine learning technologies to customise Active Hours.
"Based on the limited use of active hours reported by our participants, an alternative may be for Windows to learn sensible defaults from usage activity and set appropriate restart times automatically," the paper stated.
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