Microsoft's plan for Windows 10 world domination

Unparalleled distribution strategy is the story

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No other desktop OS does this. By default, Apple's OS X, for instance, does not download the now-annual upgrade in the background without some explicit user action, even though the upgrades are, like Windows 10, free for the taking. Users can flip a switch in the Mac App Store's preferences to change this behavior, though.

But some operating systems do behave similarly: Apple's iOS will eventually download an upgrade onto an iPhone if the user has previously declined to retrieve it after seeing several nag notices. iOS will not initiate the actually upgrade process, however, without approval.

Still, Microsoft's move was jarring to those who had no interest in changing to Windows 10, and who were upset that Microsoft chewed up bandwidth and hijacked several gigabytes of storage to download and store the upgrade. The disconnect between Microsoft's behavior and user expectations had several sources. Two are paramount: This is the first time Windows users have faced a free upgrade, first of all -- Microsoft is in uncharted waters on a whole host of issues that have never been raised in the Windows world -- and secondly, desktop PC owners in general view upgrades as riskier and less compelling than do mobile device owners. That's particularly the case in the Windows ecosystem, where a seemingly-unlimited number of combinations of hardware configurations and peripherals, drivers for all that, and software make for a witch's brew of problems that can stymie an upgrade or cripple a computer.

October 2015: Pushy is the new norm

In late October, Microsoft announced the next step in its distribution strategy: It would push the Windows 10 upgrade to eligible PCs automatically, then kick off the upgrade process.

The first of the two-part process, Microsoft said, would add the Windows 10 upgrade to the Windows Update list on Windows 7 and 8.1 systems as an "optional" item. That list can be examined by users, letting them choose -- or not -- each optional update. At the time, Microsoft's Myerson said that step would be taken "soon." However, as of Jan. 11, there's no evidence the company has placed the upgrade on the Windows Update's optional list. (Because the company often uses Patch Tuesday to deliver non-security updates, it may begin seeding the Windows 10 upgrade as an optional item on Tuesday, Jan. 12.)

After that -- Myerson said in early 2016, but wasn't more specific than that -- Microsoft will shift the Windows 10 upgrade to the "recommended" list. Updates on that list are automatically downloaded and installed on most PCs. Because it's an upgrade, users will have the opportunity to cancel the upgrade once it begins.

Microsoft has a history of using this two-step with many of its Windows 7 and 8.1 updates of first ticking an item as optional, then after some time digesting telemetry from customers to see if there are any showstoppers, switching the same item to recommended status.

But this procedure is unparalleled, not only for Microsoft, but also for OS vendors in general. While mobile operating systems, such as iOS, will download to the device and then nag the user into installing, none actually launch the installation action without explicit user approval.

Microsoft is clearly banking on substantial uptake from this measure, and seemingly doesn't care whether Windows 10 is installed because the user chooses to do so or wearies of the nagging as the upgrade begins, even if the upgrade is canceled multiple times.

That's evidenced by the blowback from some users -- who have rebelled against the less aggressive moves made thus far -- and Microsoft's plan to carry on in the face of that resistance.

The nuclear option?

Although Microsoft has said the Windows 10 upgrade will not complete without user approval -- "You will be clearly prompted to choose whether or not to continue [the upgrade process]," said Myerson in an Oct. 29 blog post -- it's possible the company has the next logical step on its strategy list or among its contingencies.

Some cynical users have wondered for months, since Microsoft first put the Get Windows 10 applet on customers' PCs, really, if the firm might dare to take the radical step of not only downloading and initiating the upgrade, but completing it as well.

Microsoft could justify such an action if the widely-used Windows 7 was nearing retirement, but that's still four years off. (Windows 7 exits all public support on Jan. 14, 2020.) If it were to make this move, it would need to do so before the end of July 2016, or extend the free upgrade offer beyond the current 12 months.

It's conceivable that Microsoft would trigger an automatic upgrade if it felt its back was to the wall because of lackluster Windows 10 adoption or believed that without such a step it would fail to meet its publicized goal of putting the new OS on 1 billion devices by mid-2018. Currently, that's not the case.

While Windows 10's uptake tempo has so far not exceeded that of Windows 7's during the latter's first five months of availability in late 2009-early 2010, nor has its shortfall been significant. Meeting the bar set by Windows 7 has been a major achievement for Windows 10.

But the nuclear option is almost certainly on the table, even if CEO Satya Nadella said a year ago that the goal was to, "...move from people needing Windows to choosing Windows to loving Windows [emphasis added."

If Microsoft were to trigger an auto-upgrade, expect to hear rationales that evoke past arguments at prior steps in the distribution strategy, including: assertions that customers prefer Windows 10 over predecessors, with statistics backing up the claim culled from Windows 10's telemetry; and assurances the new OS is more secure than either Windows 7 or 8.1 -- historically true enough, as fresh operating systems are resistant to attack until hackers dissect the code and find new vulnerabilities or ways to avoid new defensive technologies.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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