Microsoft began a staged rollout of the Windows 8.1 update -- including updates for Windows 8 as well as Windows RT, which is a more lightweight version of the OS -- Thursday morning. But in short order, some users began experiencing installation errors that left their RT devices bricked. In response, Microsoft pulled the RT upgrade from the Windows Store.
The update problem was confirmed by Microsoft Friday via its support forums. "Microsoft is investigating a situation affecting a limited number of users updating their Windows RT devices to Windows RT 8.1," a Microsoft employee posted in response to user queries about why the update was no longer available. "As a result, we have temporarily removed the Windows RT 8.1 update from the Windows Store. We are working to resolve the situation as quickly as possible and apologize for any inconvenience. We will provide updates as they become available."
[ It's hard to argue against faster updates, but IT must adapt to keep up. See What Microsoft's Rapid-Release Cycle Means For IT. ]
In response, many RT users criticized Microsoft for not issuing a more public alert about the problem. Multiple comments posted to Microsoft's support forum recorded RT users' collective frustration -- and lost hours -- owing to the upgrade snafu. "Microsoft forum moderator: It sure would have been nice if the store would have told me this instead of me spending hours trying to 'troubleshoot my problem.' Maybe an update tile explaining this or even giving an ETA (days, weeks or months) on when this will be available," posted "jmwallace74."
"It would have been nice to have updated the Windows RT 8.1 upgrade support page with this information," posted "CatWranglerUK" Sunday. "I spent Saturday restoring my Surface as I thought it was a problem with my device -- as search engine crawlers haven't caught [up] with this response, finding [Microsoft's] answer was almost impossible."
A Microsoft spokesman didn't immediately respond to an emailed request, sent early Monday, seeking an update on the status of the Windows 8.1 fix for RT devices.
While Microsoft has yet to release any troubleshooting instructions for affected Windows RT users, help arrived Saturday in the form of a post from "Kick That Computer" blog owner Scott Williams, who said he owns two Surface RT tablets. The first tablet updated without a problem, he reported, but the second one crashed, displaying the following blue-screen error message: "Recovery: Your PC needs to be repaired. The Boot Configuration Data file is missing some required information."
Thankfully, as Williams reported in his "Windows RT 8.1 upgrade fails with Boot Configuration error" blog post, he found a solution to the problem that will retain people's stored data as well as device settings. "Although it takes a while, and might be a bit tricky, it does seem to be fairly easy to recover from," Williams said. He later added: "Update: I have now received multiple confirmations that this works, and no data is lost!"
His recovery technique involves creating a bootable USB recovery drive from any Windows PC -- and note that any PC running an operating system later than Windows XP will do; it doesn't have to be an RT device. This recovery key can then be used to boot the bricked RT device and launch tools to repair the disk.
By late Sunday, Williams reported seeing strong uptake for his free tech support, especially in lieu of any official guidance from Microsoft. "I've actually spent the entire weekend helping many fix RT," he tweeted, "so many are using the guide."
One takeaway for RT users from the botched Windows RT 8.1 update: Always back up your device before attempting to upgrade. Also create a recovery USB key, which will also enable you to recover a BitLocker encryption key, if necessary.
The Windows RT 8.1 update snafu marks a further setback for Microsoft, which has been looking to Windows 8.1 to help save its lightweight Windows RT operating system. To date, consumer demand for products based on RT has been weak, and HTC scrapped its 12-inch Windows RT tablet in May.
After this story ran, a Microsoft spokeswoman said in an email that the Windows RT 8.1 update problem seemed to affect fewer than 0.1% of all Surface RT customers who attempted to install the upgrade. "Improving their experience and ensuring their systems are fully operable as quickly as possible is our number-one priority," she said. "We have made recovery media available for download here along with actionable guidance for affected customers."
She added: "We continue to work toward making the Windows RT 8.1 update available in the Windows Store again and apologize for any inconvenience. Further updates will be provided as they become available."
Microsoft Tuesday resumed offering Windows RT 8.1 as a free download from the Windows Store. A Microsoft spokeswoman said via email that the company traced the problem -- which affected a relatively small number of users -- to "a rare situation where firmware updates had not completed at the time of the update to RT 8.1."
"In most cases, if a customer encountered this issue the result was simply an extra reboot. However, for a very small percentage, the boot configuration data was affected which prevented a successful boot," she said. "We worked to quickly resolve the issue and now encourage customers to update their Surface RT devices. Surface Pro and 8.1 customers were not impacted by this issue."
Microsoft is continuing to offer a downloadable fix for users whose machines were affected by the bug.