Microsoft reveals biggest-ever change in Windows updates

Windows patch

Microsoft will radically revamp which Windows updates customers receive starting with Windows 10, a move analysts said was the biggest-ever change in the firm's update practices.

"Call this 'Goldilocks and the Three OS Cadences,'" razzed Michael Silver of Gartner in an interview. "This is [Microsoft's] answer to the update cadence issue for enterprises, and what organizations want."

Silver was talking about updating changes that will debut in Windows 10 , the upgrade slated to ship by mid-2015. In a Tuesday blog, Microsoft mentioned, almost in passing, how it will service the new OS, and presumably, those after it too.

In that blog, Microsoft sketched out a three-tiered updating plan that would let customers choose between a "fast-moving consumer pace," a "lock-down" tempo, and one in between, which it didn't name.

Rather than the historical offer-everything-to-everyone updating policy -- which has relied on security patches during the approximately three years between each edition of Windows -- Microsoft will create three different "tracks" that customers can essentially subscribe to.

"Windows 10 will be delivered in a way that gives more choice and flexibility to businesses," wrote Jim Alkove, the head of Microsoft's Windows enterprise program management team, in the Tuesday blog. "As a result, a business can pick the speed of innovation that is right for each group of its users, rather than apply a one size fits all solution."

Silver called the three "consumer speed," "near-consumer speed" and "long-term."

The first will include all changes, including security patches, new features and user interface (UI) changes, as well as upgrades from, say, Windows 10 to Windows 10.1, if Microsoft uses that numerical naming convention. Adopting the consumer speed tempo means customers will receive all updates as soon as Microsoft has them ready.

Microsoft had tipped its hand about consumer speed -- although it never used that phrase -- in August when it said future feature updates would be delivered more frequently and in smaller packets using the monthly Patch Tuesday-Windows Update combination. Most have interpreted that to mean monthly, or at the least, near-monthly, changes to the OS.

Consumer speed will probably be warmly received by consumers -- most of whom automatically accept every Windows update -- and put Microsoft even with Google and ahead of Apple, which adds features to and makes UI changes in OS X (and iOS) only once each year.

Few businesses, however, will be willing to accept such a quick cadence. That was made clear earlier this year when Microsoft got pushback from enterprises when it told them they were required to deploy Windows 8.1 Update within 30 days or be denied future security fixes. (Microsoft quickly recanted, extending the deadline for commercial customers to 120 days.)

Instead, enterprises will likely gravitate toward the tempo that Silver dubbed "long-term" and which Microsoft characterized as "lock-down [for] mission critical environments." That pace will provide only "security and critical updates to their systems," said Alkove. (It was unclear what separated "security" from "critical" in Microsoft's parlance.)

The long-term update pace will exclude new features and UI changes, said Silver, and consist of only security and other performance and reliability fixes. Companies will be able to manage those incoming updates as they do now with Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) and other corporate patch-management tools.

Sitting between consumer speed and long-term will be what Silver named "near-consumer speed." As the name implied, it will be a mix of the fastest and slowest update cadences.

"In near-consumer speed Microsoft will release a bunch of updates, and you'll have about four months to deploy them," said Silver.

That timetable -- four months -- was the same that Microsoft settled on for Windows 8.1 Update, which shipped in April. Wes Miller, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, believed the time span came out of that experience, and that Windows 8.1 Update was a trial balloon floated by Microsoft to figure out what enterprises would tolerate.

Silver disagreed. "I'm not sure [the Windows 8.1 Update] was that well thought out," he said.

Silver drew comparisons between the Windows 8.1 Update process and Microsoft's near-consumer pace, however, sure that under the cadence, customers who did not apply the feature and UI changes within the four-month stretch would be cut off from security patches.

Business will be able to decide which devices running Windows 10 "subscribe" to which update tempo, giving some machines, for example, a constant stream of consumer speed updates, even as most are locked down to receive only security patches.

"The choice isn't one or the other for businesses; we expect that most will require a mixed approach where a number of scenarios can be accommodated," Alkove bet.

Both Silver and Miller applauded the three-track plan.

"This is exactly what they needed to do," said Miller of the attempt to mollify both consumer and commercial customers.

"It's admirable that Microsoft has gone that far to give folks the three choices," said Silver. "'Long-term speed' is what organizations want. They want stuff to get fixed, but they don't want changes that muck up the works. That's been true since at least Windows NT Option Pack 4."

Windows NT Option Pack 4 dates back to 1999, and was Microsoft's response to criticism from businesses, which told the Redmond, Wash. company that they did not want new features and functionality in the service packs the firm had been pushing. Microsoft broke out the new features from the service packs, then offered them as opt-in option packs.

"I think this is a step in the right direction," concluded Silver.

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