Does Vista Know About Its Own Problems?

The other day I noticed something about Vista which made me think, "Does Vista already know about its problems?" Here's what happened: I have an external firewire (1394) disk drive that I use for backups. I've been using this for years to backup my desktop computer without any problems. Lately I've been migrating to a new laptop, and during that process I wanted to get something off the backup. When I connected the drive to my laptop, Windows found the drive, but then froze up.

I let it sit for a few minutes, hoping it would come back, but it didn't. All I could do was shut down the system hard. Unfortunately, this wiped out my backup drive, and while a huge problem in an of itself, it's not the point of why I'm writing this. Luckily I still had all my data on the laptop, so it wasn't as big a deal as it could have been. This alone is enough to launch anyone into the typical "Windows sucks" tirade, but what happened after I rebooted really surprised me... Vista downloaded a patch that fixes freeze-ups related to firewire drives!

This system was fully patched before the crash. I initially thought it was a coincidence, because this happened on a Monday, and Microsoft usually pushes out patches on a Tuesday. So it could have been a patch that was released early. However, they only release patches on the second Tuesday of the month, and this was on the first Monday. Even if an official patch were the case, it would seem very fortuitous that the exact problem I had would have a patch released for it at exactly the same time.

Did Vista already know about this patch, but didn't install it until I encountered the problem? Or maybe it waited until I used the port for the first time? Based on what I've seen, I think this is the case.

Further evidence came a few weeks later, when I installed my Pocket PC. After I connected the Pocket PC and went through the regular setup steps, I was prompted by Windows Update about new patches. The patches were related to the Pocket PC software.

I can see a few sides to an approach like this. Not all patches are needed on every system, so you save time and bandwidth by installing only those you need. Also, patches for a specific problem are not always tested to the same level as those for general distribution, so you only want to install patches that you need. On the other hand, one that could cause data loss should not be held back until the first use.

If this is their patch policy, Microsoft needs to better manage which patches are installed "on first use", and which ones are installed right away. In the case of my disk drive, the problem the patch fixed actually caused me data loss, which might have been avoided. That's not an acceptable situation. On the other hand, there's no reason for everyone to install a Pocket PC related patch unless they need it. The severity of the problem needs to be taken into account when deciding on how to push out a patch.

That said, I am impressed with the most recent incarnation of Windows Update. Keeping track of patches can get complicated, and I'm sure for a big product like Vista it's quite a chore. Windows Update (so far) has worked well. It correctly detects updates for my specific hardware, and downloading and installing patches seems smoother than earlier versions. Microsoft has been evolving this product for a few years now. I'm hoping they keep moving in the right direction.