Windows Update: An Evolutionary Step

Microsoft Corp. is moving on its promise to automate many of the things that our servers and workstations do. This strategy is designed to free administrators and developers from the hands-on involvement required for many tasks today. For instance, today, if you wish to know about the DLLs and software installed on a system, you face the thorny task of digging through the system and retrieving this information, or you must use an automated method to gather this data. If you want to find out about the updates for any of this software from the software's manufacturer, that is another time-consuming task.

With the release of Windows 98, Microsoft is bringing solutions to this problem. Windows 98 includes a new feature known as Windows Update. Windows Update comprises two parts: features that exists in Windows 98, and features from the Windows Update section of the Microsoft Web site. The Windows Update section of the Web site contains the Product Catalog with updates for Windows 98, additional add-ons such as desktop themes, new address book features, system updates such as the Microsoft Agent, and more. The Critical Updates section will list system and software updates that affect the stability and reliability of your system.

The Windows Update section of the Web site is available only to registered users. When you first access the site, you will be required to register. After that, you can get in without any prompting.

One of the nice features of the site and Windows 98 is the ability of the latter to automatically determine which components you have installed and suggest the updates your system requires. Windows 98 includes a component (CWUpinfo class in WUPDINFO.DLL) that is fired when you access the Windows Update page. If you answer Yes to the prompt, the component will search your system for installed components, and then pass that information along to the application on the Web site, resulting in a custom list of components for your system. You can access the Windows Update site directly by using the Windows Update command on the Start menu in Windows 98.

This automated updating of software is a feature that should help with managing systems and keeping them up-to-date. Microsoft did the same thing for software installations when it shipped Visual Basic 5. The Visual Basic 5 Setup Wizard automatically puts in links to the setup distribution it creates. The links will look at the Microsoft Web site for any standard Visual Basic components that should be installed on a system. As long as the user is installing the application on a system that is connected to the Internet, then the latest component will be downloaded and installed along with the application.

These automatic update features will ease the pain of system updates and software maintenance. You can expect to see more of these features in Windows NT 5.0 when it ships. I suspect there will be a Windows NT Update site also. There are also more automated updates that you can do with other software that runs on Windows. The drawbacks of these automated updates are the problems that can occur when you replace a file. For instance, if someone replaces a single file in the system32 directory of an NT system, that file may break one or more programs that run on that system. This can occur because most Windows files are dynamic files that contain code that is reused by many software packages. You can expect to see Microsoft addressing this issue in future versions of NT and Windows as the company works out zero-administration features to take care of system updates.

It takes time to solve these problems as we go through this evolutionary process. Remember when we had all the problems with network cards and DOS? We had to have a memory and IRQ expert to solve those installation problems. Today, we do not have to worry about memory problems with network cards. Windows 98 is another step on the evolutionary ladder of PC operating systems.

Ken Spencer has written several books for Microsoft Press and works for training organization 32X Corp. (Greensboro, N.C.). Contact him at kenspencer@32x.com or via the Web at www.32nt.com.