Gone are the days of using the same unchanging operating system for years. Windows 10 is getting a significant upgrade every six months, and those updates break things. Even Apple keeps messing up with iPhone updates.
More Updates, More Problems
Microsoft pulled Windows 10’s October 2018 Update because it deleted some people’s personal files, but that’s just the latest and most prominent issue—previous updates caused problems, too. For example, the Anniversary Update broke millions of webcams before a patch was released a month later. The Anniversary Update also caused some PCs to blue screen when a Kindle device was connected.
We’ve seen many smaller reports of hardware-specific problems after installing a major Windows 10 update, too.
Apple is struggling with update bugs, too. The iOS 11.1 update wouldn’t let some iPhone users type “I.” The iOS 9.0 update led to many people getting stuck on “Slide to Upgrade.” The iOS 8.0.1 update broke cellular connectivity and Touch ID for many people, so Apple had to pull it.
The First Beta: The Actual Beta
Companies like Microsoft and Apple have beta tests that should catch these problems before they hit a stable release. Microsoft has its Insider Preview program, Apple has developer and public betas, and Google has its Android beta program.
But, for whatever reason, major bugs keep slipping through the cracks. It’s becoming common for bugs to be missed and hit the stable release. The first stable release feels like another part of the beta-testing process.
The Second Beta: The Staged Release
When you install a new stable update as soon as it’s available, you’re another kind of beta tester.
For example, when a new Windows 10 update becomes stable, Microsoft slowly rolls it out to small amounts of PCs at a time. Microsoft uses Windows 10’s telemetry features to see how well it’s working on PCs in the wild. Microsoft can fix any problems it finds before the update rolls out further. For example, an update may have issues only with specific hardware on certain PCs. It may take months before the update reaches the majority of PCs.
With Windows 10, Windows Update may roll the dice and decide you’re one of the first people to get the update. But, if you head to the Settings app and click “Check for Updates,” Windows knows you want it now and you jump to the front of the queue.
This process worked with the October 2018 Update, which only deleted some people’s files. If you didn’t ask Windows to install the update, your files weren’t at risk. Microsoft halted the update and is fixing it. The process worked as intended.
But what about the people who were bitten by the bug? Yeah—they were the beta testers, and now they have to deal with the problem.
A similar process occurs on Android, where Google releases updates for its Pixel devices that automatically roll out over several weeks. But, if you tap “Check for Updates,” you’ll jump to the front of the line and get the update immediately.
This affects Linux, too. Even Canonical doesn’t offer new long-term service versions of Ubuntu as updates to its users until the first major patch release is out. Anyone who installs the new version of Ubuntu LTS is effectively a beta tester, too.
Apple doesn’t follow this path. Apple releases iOS and macOS updates to everyone at once.
The Third Beta: The Full Consumer Release
Even when the update has rolled out to all consumer devices, that normal “stable” release is still a sort of beta program. You’re beta-testing it for companies that want stable software. Microsoft and Apple let companies delay installing updates until they’re better tested by consumers.
With Windows 10 Professional, you can choose to defer major feature updates like the October Update for up to 120 days. It should probably be stable after four months, after all. Windows 10 Pro also lets you choose different “channels” of updates. By default, PCs are on the “Semi-Annual Channel (Targeted).” Updates reach the “Semi-Annual Channel” later.
The Windows 10 Settings interface says that PCs on the normal targeted channel get updates “when they’re ready for most people,” while PCs on the normal Semi-Annual Channel get an update “when it’s ready for widespread use in organizations.”
What’s the difference? Well, the updates that are “ready for most people” have more bugs! Once all those bugs are worked out on consumer PCs, Microsoft is comfortable offering the updates to businesses. Businesses can also get an even more rock-solid version of Windows 10 by choosing the long-term servicing branch (LTSB) version that’s only updated once every few years.
Apple lets companies do something similar, delaying iOS updates for up to 90 days if they so choose. This would give Apple more time to fix bugs in these update before they reach organizations.
Sure, some businesses may have mission-critical software that needs time to update before it runs on the new operating system—but some people have mission-critical software that might break, too.
Why Is This Happening?
Gone are the days of using Windows XP Service Pack 2 for four or five years. Companies want to cram their operating systems full of new features and such on a continual basis. They’re inspired by websites and other cloud services that can quickly change things and add new features.
But operating systems are still complex. They’re not just websites—they interface with your device hardware and software. Windows PCs have a wide variety of different hardware devices and low-level software. They aren’t like phones, and problems are more likely to occur when updating them. But, even Apple, a company that only has a handful of iPhones to update, can’t avoid the bugs.
For better or worse—and it is worse, in many ways—that’s the world we live in now.
It’s also worth noting that this isn’t a new phenomenon. System administrators used to say people should “wait until service pack 2” before installing a new Microsoft operating system. Now, a new Microsoft operating system is being released every six months.
What Should You Do?
We don’t recommend you avoid updates completely. Security updates are important to keep you safe.
However, we do recommend some caution before installing updates. When a new Windows 10 Update is released, don’t immediately head to Windows Update and click “Check for Updates” to install it. You’re just skipping to the front of the update queue. Wait a week or two and see if there’s a major problem reported first. If you have Windows 10 Professional, consider deferring updates for a few weeks to prevent Windows from automatically installing them.
When Apple releases a new iPhone, iPad, or Mac operating system, wait a few days before installing it. Let other people discover the new bugs. Skip the part where you have to manually downgrade your phone via iTunes or restore your Mac from Time Machine.
The same goes for Android updates. When Google is slowly rolling out an update over a few weeks, let Google do its thing. Don’t skip to the front of the update queue.
Back Up Your Stuff, Too!
The October 2018 Update deleting files is a great reminder that you need to back up your files. Whatever device you’re using, you need good, recent backups just in case an update goes horribly wrong.
An operating system update isn’t the only thing that could cause a problem, either. A normal software update could go haywire, you could get infected with malware, a power surge could take out your gear, your home or office could go up in flames, or your hardware could just die. Have good backups, and you won’t worry about it. Whether you’re using Windows, Mac, or Linux, back up your stuff!
This is less critical on mobile devices, of course. Apple’s iPhone backs up to iCloud by default, and Android backs up to Google’s servers. You’re likely using a bunch of services and apps that sync to the cloud, anyway. But, if you’re concerned, you can make a complete local backup of your iPhone or iPad through iTunes before updating.