Over the past week, I’ve had several members of the “old guard” — colleagues who go back with me to the stone age of networking, during the glory days of Novell NetWare in the late 1980s and early 90s — contact me about a vexing problem with the free Windows Store upgrade from Windows 8 to Windows 8.1. Though there are many variations on this theme (if you search Google for Windows 8.1 download hangs you’ll immediately see what I mean) the basic situation plays out like this:
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1. A user running a Windows 8 PC visits the Windows Store, and starts the Windows 8.1 download
2. Somewhere prior to completion, the download process hangs and never completes
3. Repeated download attempts likewise hang, and the Windows 8.1 upgrade process never completes, either
Those who get an error message from a failed Windows 8.1 upgrade may see this; most affected by the hang see nothing at all.
There’s an interesting “catch” involved here, too. The obvious fix is to grab the Windows 8.1 ISO and skip the store download. But without some trickery, the old Windows 8 key will not be accepted during the early phases of the Windows 8.1 install where a key is (normally) requested. One old friend of mine recounted at length how this led to a classic IT finger pointing exercise, wherein vendors blame each other and no remedy to the situation can be extracted from either one. This involves OEM versions of Windows, where the OS software is typically licensed to a hardware vendor (I’ve seen complaints of this kind of thing for owners of Acer, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Sony units of vintage recent enough to have come with Windows 8 pre-installed). Microsoft says “It’s an OEM problem, so you need to work this out with your OEM.” The OEMs say “We can’t issue Windows 8.1 keys, go talk to Microsoft.”
This has led to some pretty extreme reactions from affected users and IT professionals (see Brad McCarty’s “The Utter Failure of my Windows 8.1 Upgrade” for a good example of this genre), and to plenty of frustration and vexation for that audience as well. My old buddy Mickey points out that the Windows Store method may work for home users, or onesie-twosie business situations, and that businesses big enough to have Software Assurance, volume purchase agreements, or enterprise licenses with Microsoft have no trouble generating as many Windows 8.1 keys as they might need. Small businesses with up to 100-200 users, however, are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They can’t really automate the Windows Store upgrade approach, nor are they willing to purchase 8.1 keys just to avoid the hassle of working through the one-at-a-time upgrade at the Windows Store, either.
In this connection, a post at answers.microsoft.com dated October 23, 2013, may give affected users (and small businesses) some hope for relief, along with a usable workaround. First, they can follow the article at NeoWin “Here is how to get the Windows 8.1 ISO and create a USB install stick” to create a workable 8.1 installer that doesn’t involve downloading anything from the store. This will abort when the initial key request occurs early in the install process, but by creating a specially formatted ei.cfg file (as described in a comment at WinSuperSite.com) they can instruct the Windows 8.1 installer to skip the initial request for a key during the install process. When the machine next reboots, it will ask for a key, but it will accept the upgraded Windows 8 key as valid at this later point in the Windows 8.1 install process. According to online sources, Windows 8.1 happily activates the old key thereafter.
It all goes to show that when things go wrong, the easy or obvious approach may not work to fix them, but sufficient energy and ingenuity can lead to a workable solution. Here’s hoping that this method will bail all the many IT service providers and small consulting outfits who support small businesses out of their current upgrade jams!