By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1999, The Syracuse Newspapers
If you run a computer network, Microsoft has an unpleasant surprise for you. The company is giving away a program that forces every Windows 98 PC on which it is installed to connect to a Microsoft Internet site 288 times a day.
I know this sounds crazy. Stay with me.
Microsoft calls this program the Critical Update Notification tool. When it is installed on a PC that has a network connection to the Internet, this program automatically connects to a Microsoft update site every five minutes. This occurs 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
On a small network with only a few users this would represent nothing more than mindless overkill. After all, no one needs to check for bug fixes every five minutes.
But on a network with hundreds or even thousands of PCs, the idea that each of these PCs would connect to a site every five minutes, 288 times a day, seems outrageous. It's a senseless waste of network capacity.
The program is designed for Windows 98. As far as I know, it won't work under Windows 95 or Windows NT.
Anyone at the helm of a Windows 98 PC can install the Critical Update Notification tool. Users simply click inside a box and then click a "Download" button. In most cases, the rest is automatic.
Most users who saw Microsoft's description of the update system probably would not hesitate to install it. Microsoft tells visitors to its Web site that the update program will notify them as quickly as possible of bug fixes (or "updates," as Microsoft often calls bug fixes). Nowhere in that explanation does Microsoft say that the program will connect to its Internet update site 288 times a day.
The update program hides itself away after it is installed. It will not show up in the Windows 98 Startup folder (inside the Start Menu), nor will it appear in the Registry's "RUN" key. It's also out of the grasp of Microsoft's system configuration utility, which can be run from the Tools menu of the System Information program. (It's in the "System Tools" part of the Start Menu.)
But you'll see it listed if you look in the program scheduler that comes with Windows 98. Double click the scheduler's icon in the System Tray (at the right of the Taskbar), then double-click the entry for the Critical Update Notification tool. You can then disable the schedule or you can change it from once every five minutes to something more reasonable, such as once a week.
The release of this program seems to signal a disturbing shift at Microsoft. I doubt that the company would have come up with such a program a year or two ago, when Microsoft's own engineers surely would have found the notion of checking across the Internet for bug fixes every five minutes preposterous.
But Microsoft's recent troubles -- a U.S. lawsuit over the company's monopoly in PC operating systems and further delays in the scheduled release of Windows 2000, to name just two -- seem to have cast it adrift, with no one firmly in charge of some of its operations. It's unthinkable that a properly managed Windows-update operation would permit such a runaway program to be distributed on the Web.
Even more disturbing is the vision of Microsoft as the purveyor of foolishness. Already, the cloying "Easter eggs" that Microsoft hides away in its software -- surprise messages, sounds or images that show off the skill of the programmers but have no usefulness otherwise -- are forcing many users to question the seriousness of Microsoft's management.
A company whose engineers can spend dozens or even hundreds of hours placing nonsensical "Easter eggs" in various programs would seem to have no excuse for releasing Windows with any bugs at all. Microsoft's priorities are upside down if "Easter egg" frills and other non-essential features are more important than getting the basic software to work right.
Adding the run-amok update program to its Web site was a dumb move, and it makes Microsoft look stupid. There's a sobriety test that requires nothing more than walking a straight line. We need one for Microsoft. Can it demonstrate that it takes its own software seriously? Only Microsoft has the answer.