Microsoft to add 'black box' to Windows

Redmond will add the equivalent of a flight data recorder to PCs. Such detailed information could rankle privacy advocates.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
3 min read
SEATTLE--In a move that could rankle privacy advocates, Microsoft said Monday that it is adding the PC equivalent of a flight data recorder to the next version of Windows, in an effort to better understand and prevent computer crashes.

The tool will build on the existing Watson error-reporting tool in Windows but will provide Microsoft with much deeper information, including what programs were running at the time of the error and even the contents of documents that were being created. Businesses will also choose whether they want their own technology managers to receive such data when an employee's machine crashes.

"Think of it as a flight data recorder, so that any time there's a problem, that 'black box' is there helping us work together and diagnose what's going on," Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates said during a speech at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference here.

For consumers, the choice of whether to send the data, and how much information to share, will be up to the individual. Though the details are being finalized, Windows lead product manager Greg Sullivan said users will be prompted with a message indicating the information to be sent and giving them an option to alter it, such as removing the contents of the e-mail they were writing when the machine crashed. Also, such reporting will also be anonymous.

"Our stance on this is that the user is in control," Sullivan said. "In the consumer environment, you will be presented with a dialog that clearly gives you the choice whether to share the information and then also provides exactly what the detail is so you can parse character by character what's being sent."

With businesses, however, IT managers typically set the policy. If they wanted total information, they could configure systems so that they'd know not only that a user was running Internet Explorer, for example, but also that he or she was watching a video from ESPN.com. Or, they might find out not only that a worker was running Instant Messenger but also that he or she was talking to a co-worker about getting a new job.

And consumers could have a tough time knowing just what information they were sending. Though they'll be able to see the contents of a document, they may not recognize the significance of the technical data--such as register settings--that's being sent.

Industry analyst Richard Doherty said he doubted Microsoft got enough feedback on how users might feel about such a feature. Even airplane pilots, Doherty said, have been able to keep from having their routine in-flight dialogue preserved. Microsoft's version of the black box, Doherty said "is begging for more real-world testing."

But Sullivan pointed out that businesses can already install third-party software to monitor workers' computer usage and some do.

He also said that in the present incarnation of Windows, companies have fairly fine control over what crash data they receive and what information gets sent on to Microsoft. With the new black box feature, he said, companies will simply have "more detailed management ability of the reporting infrastructure."

With the information it does get, Microsoft could, in theory, identify a problem the first time it appears and push down a patch so that no other person encounters the error. Microsoft also shares some data with other Windows developers to help them improve their products. However, Sullivan acknowledged that the day when an error only crops up one time and is fixed is still a long way off.

"Will we ever get to once? No," Sullivan said. "That will remain the goal."

Microsoft also plans to step up the amount of information Windows users get when they send an error report to the company. With Windows XP, the software leviathan has begun sending information back to consumers, though the data tends to be fairly generic. Microsoft is trying to get to a point where it can send back specific details on the problem and how to fix it.

"We're going to take steps toward that," Sullivan said. "It remains to see exactly how far down that path we get."