Windows 10 updates force enterprises to shift eval tactics

Enterprises will have to rethink the way they evaluate Microsoft operating systems, since Windows 10 may never really be done.

business people running on an endless loop of gears

Microsoft's new Windows development and updating scheme will force enterprises to rethink how they evaluate the company's operating systems.

"There is no doubt that the new update cadence Microsoft is planning for Windows 10 gives the company a lot of options around what RTM and finished really mean," said Gartner analyst Steve Kleynhans, referring to "release to manufacturing," a Microsoft term that implies code is ready to distribute to device makers. "Windows 10 may never really be considered done, but rather will just move to the next level with the next update."

Rapid upgrade pace

Microsoft's radical overhaul of Windows development and maintenance involves a rapid update and upgrade pace -- a massive departure from the company's previous three-years-and-done approach. Rather than release a new version of Windows and then support it with only minor bug fixes and security patches, Microsoft will adopt an accelerated release tempo with Windows 10, and will constantly add incremental features and functionality and change the user interface and user experience (UX).

"In the past, they've come up to the product launch -- bang. But if they really screwed something up, they had to wait three years to fix it," Kleynhans said. "Now, they can fix it in three or four months."

Windows 10, in other words, will more closely resemble mobile operating systems, which are continually refreshed and are "additive" -- meaning features accumulate from one version to the next. Consumers will receive updates as they arrive -- perhaps monthly. Businesses will have options, specifically a pair of slower-speed tracks: "current branch for business" and "long-term servicing branch."

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The current branch for business (CBB) is meant to give enterprises time to test and deploy changes; Microsoft has hinted that updates will come out every four months.

The long-term servicing (LTS) branch will be even slower, with Microsoft delivering security patches but leaving Windows 10's feature set and UI untouched for years.

The new approach may mean that what the company releases to customers this summer will be different in scope and perhaps even polish than old-school Windows.

"Gabe Aul [engineering general manager for Microsoft's operating system group] has said the team wants to build a classic, solid product, as before," said Wes Miller, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft. "But we may see more iterations after the fact than we have seen before."

Too slow

Microsoft has been criticized for not making good on its pledge of a rapid update cadence during the testing of Windows 10's preview. In response, the company made a renewed promise to move faster.

"The pace does seem somewhat slow and erratic when compared to previous beta programs," Kleynhans said. "However, I think it is an artifact of the new openness of the Insider [preview] program. We are getting a more up-close view of what the sausage factory really looks like with half-complete features coming and going, and generally rougher code.

"I also think Microsoft is still coming to grips with exactly how the process should work," he continued. "Remember, Microsoft isn't just creating a new OS, but also a new process for creating and delivering an OS."

Customers will have to get a similar grip.

"Absolutely," Miller said when asked whether customers must modify their mentality when evaluating Windows 10. "The reality is that consumers are willing to look at it one way, and that enterprises will look at it another way. That's especially true of 'long-term servicing.' What is it? What's the quality bar with the first one? Remember, that build will be frozen in carbonite," Miller added, tossing in a Star Wars reference.

If the inaugural long-term build's quality isn't up to previous standards, enterprises could pass on Windows 10 for early evaluation, a decision that has timing implications, with Windows 7's retirement date less than five years away.

A change in mindset

Kleynhans disagreed. "I think Windows 10 gives enterprises leeway around the long-term servicing release," he said. "For one thing, there's nothing that says the long-term servicing release has to be the same as the first version Microsoft offers to enterprises. Microsoft could say that the long-term release will ship, say, in March 2016. All they need is to tell enterprises when it's going to be."

The company has left the door open to doing essentially that. "We expect to provide new long-term servicing branches at appropriate time intervals, which will incorporate new functionality," Jim Alkove, director of program management for Microsoft's enterprise group, said in January.

Kleynhans recommended that enterprises change their testing processes. "I think they should shift their mindset away from lab testing to ongoing pilots," he said.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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