AutoUpdate made its debut in the first external build after Millennium Beta 2, which was released in late November 1999. As shown in these screenshots, the initial attempt at an Activity Center user interface was a complete disaster. Microsoft abandoned this user interface in later builds for a more elegant, and standard, Windows API user interface.
Still, AutoUpdate was up and running, technologically, in November. And despite security concerns--Microsoft is still smarting from the revelation that it was gathering user information in online registrations for Windows 95 and Office 97--it's clearly important for this future operating system to be able to update itself without user intervention via the Internet.
AutoUpdate in Millennium Beta 2 Refresh
In the Beta 2 Refresh build of Millennium, which became available on January 24, 2000, Microsoft walked away from the old Activity Center-style interface, which clearly wasn't working, and "downgraded" AutoUpdate to resemble a standard Windows application. Oddly enough, System Restore and the Millennium online Help system will continue to use an HTML-based Activity Center user interface, even in the final product apparently. While this will give users a preview of the HTML-based user interface to come in "Whistler," the next major revision to Windows, I think this is a mistake. Standard Windows applications simply offer a richer environment for users.
No matter: In the Millennium Beta 2 Refresh, AutoUpdate AutoUpdate has the ability to update itself, so a small executable will occasionally pop-up in the list of running tasks and poll the Microsoft Web site. This allows AutoUpdate to install a newer version of itself so that it can keep up-to-date with changes in the AutoUpdate server environment. During the Millennium beta, Microsoft will use this feature to fix bugs as well. Normally, AutoUpdate will automatically check for updates once a day without any prompting from the user.
Before this automatic download commences, however, AutoUpdate will execute and ask you whether you'd like to enable the feature. This is probably a wise idea, given security and privacy concerns. In the screenshots below, AutoUpdate walks the user through the process of setting it up. This program runs automatically within a day or so of installing Millennium and there's no way, to my knowledge, of making it run before that.
If you do decide to install AutoUpdate, the waiting game begins. During the beta, Microsoft has seeded the AutoUpdate server with sample updates for testing purposes. Though I suspect that most people will eventually choose to allow AutoUpdate to update their system in the background, I chose to be notified when updates were made available. So the process involves a bit of user interaction:
And that's that. Once AutoUpdate is installed on your system, the hidden folder C:\Program Files\Windows Update will hold records of the updates you've downloaded. And a Control Panel applet called Automatic Updates will appear, allowing you to manage AutoUpdate. You can use this applet, for example, to change the way that downloads are handled.
Even In its current form, the functionality that AutoUpdate brings to Windows is clearly the wave of the future. Back when Windows 98 was in beta, Microsoft wrestled with the notion of updating users' computers over the Internet. The first solution to this problem, Windows Update, was partially successful, but it requires that the user manually visit the site to see whether updates are available. During the Windows 98 SE and IE 5.0 betas, Microsoft introduced the concept of "Critical Updates," the spiritual predecessor to AutoUpdate, which would allow users to configure their computers to automatically download updates that were considered "critical," whatever that means. But with AutoUpdate, the circle is complete: Assuming that users can get over their security and privacies concerns, AutoUpdate will continually keep computers up-to-date without any user interaction. In a day and age where systems are connected to the Internet 24/7, this is an obvious benefit and advantage for users of Windows.
In fact, the AutoUpdate feature won't stop with Windows. In it's first Service Release for Office 2000, Microsoft will debut an Office AutoUpdate feature that will perform the same functions for Office. SR1 is currently expected to debut sometime in March 2000.