What happened to Windows 10 1909?

If past were prologue, this fall's version of Windows 10 would already be in the hands of Insiders for testing. But it's yet to be seen.

hand at keyboard with Windows logo

Microsoft's logo may not be Elmer Fudd in a red-and-brown cap, but the company has been vewy, vewy qwiet about the year's second Windows 10 feature upgrade.

That upgrade - designated, if Microsoft hews to practice, "Windows 10 October 2019 Update" and given the 1909 four-digit yymm nickname - has been tossed down a well, muffled by a pillow, shut up in a basement room. It may be there, but no one's heard from it.

In the past, Microsoft's twice-annual feature upgrades have shot for April and October releases (even though numerically named as if they'd made it out in March and September). As one feature upgrade neared release, Microsoft shifted the attention of its Insider participants - the volunteers who test previewed versions of the OS - to the next upgrade.

In 2018, for example, even as Microsoft was wrapping up Windows 10 1803 for an eventual April 30 launch, it offered the 1809 successor on March 7 to Insiders who had opted for the "Skip Ahead" build channel. On May 3, the company began serving 1809's early code to all Insiders, not just the few who had adopted Skip Ahead.

A year later, there was no sign of that practice. Instead, Microsoft jumped ahead one upgrade, to Windows 10 April 2020 Update, aka 2003. On Feb. 14, Microsoft started seeding the Skip Ahead group with builds from what it called the 20H1, or first half, 2020, development branch. To explain the detour, Microsoft said, "Some things we are working on in 20H1 require a longer lead time."

Spokespeople also promised that the normal line of succession would somehow be retained. "We will begin releasing 19H2 (second half, 2019) bits to Insiders later this spring after we get 19H1 nearly finished and ready."

What Microsoft dubbed 19H1 in those February statements was later named "Windows 10 May 2019 Update" and, oddly, 1903, as if May and March were the same. Windows 10 1903 has yet to officially begin the distribution process; Microsoft delayed it until sometime in "late May" because of additional testing, part of the company's effort to avoid a repeat of the disastrous Windows 10 1809 roll-out.

By prior timetables, Windows 10 1909 is three months late in its testing regimen and has approximately five months left before release. Meanwhile, Insiders have been running previews of the future 2003 for the last three months.

What in the name of Steve Ballmer is going on?

Does the unusual sequencing foretell a 1909 no-show as Microsoft pulls a one-off skip to get things back on track after the 1809 debacle and extra testing of 1903?

Does it mean that the fall feature upgrade will henceforth be of less import, the "minor" half of a "major-minor" cadence, which will emphasize stability and reliability, and forgo new features?

Or is the omission of 1909 testing a clue that Microsoft is again changing Windows 10's updating tempo by dialing back to a spring-only, once-annual schedule?

Computerworld asked two Windows update experts what they think is behind 1909's vanishing act.

Go to 1x, Redmond!

"I honestly don't know what they are doing in not testing the next version," said Susan Bradley, a computer network and security consultant who moderates the PatchMangement.org mailing list and contributes to AskWoody.com, the Windows tip site. "[But] I do really hope they go to once a year."

Her wish that Microsoft switch to an annual upgrade schedule for Windows 10 is not new. She has called for such for years, prompted by what she's described as the poor quality of Microsoft upgrades and updates of all kinds. "They should slow down, get it right and then roll things out once a year," Bradley advised.

Because Bradley is on the IT firing line - she's not creating policy in her organization, but executing it - she had more immediate concerns than 1909's scheduling. "I'm still waiting for the official notification that 1903 or 1905, or whatever that one is to be called, is starting to be pushed out," Bradley said. "I'm still waiting for 1809 to stop shipping updates willy nilly. And I still do not know why KB4495667, dated May 3, 2019, decided to push out to my laptop on that Friday night and demand a reboot, when there was no reason for them to have pushed out that update as if it were an out-of-band-release."

The upended schedule is proof enough that Microsoft's model remains flawed, Bradley said. "The fact that we are at May 13 and we haven't had an official acknowledgement that 1903 is shipping and thus in the normal servicing process, means that they can't handle the cadence they thought they could," she argued. "I'd like [Microsoft] to get more predictable and transparent on released versions before they start testing out new stuff."

Minor, no major

"[Windows 10] 1909 does look like a minor branch upgrade from a feature perspective," countered Chris Goettl, product manager with client security and management vendor Ivanti. "There was a rumor that 1909 was not going to release at all, but that seems to be dispelled at this point."

The key to Goettl's take was the 2018 announcement that each year's second feature upgrade, the one designated yy09 would be supported for 30 months, not the usual 18, on Windows 10 Enterprise and Windows 10 Education. The 30-month support cycle was a major concession to large Windows customers, who had criticized the constant upgrading of the operating system. The 30-month support made it easy for enterprises to skip a feature upgrade by adopting every other refresh. That practice, however, demanded that corporate IT staffs stick with the fall feature upgrades.

"Microsoft has put an emphasis on the fall release as being the longer-lived branch each year," Goettl said, noting the 30 months of support. "To focus on this branch being the 'stable branch' each year, it would make sense to focus much of the new major feature changes in the yy03 release each year and vet them in that branch."

In Goettl's scenario, Microsoft will use the still-to-be-released 1903 as the testing bed for the more important 1909. ("More important" because it's the version of 2019 preferred by businesses, who are the customers most vital to Microsoft's revenue and thus success.) Likewise, 2003 - Microsoft's 20H1 - will be the feature-debuting upgrade of next year, while 2009 would be a more polished, more stable, more reliable version thanks to the months-long real-world trials of its predecessor.

In some ways, this scenario would be much like the current upgrade model, or "current" as existing prior to the trouble-packed 1809. Under the earlier approach, as each build was developed it was tested first by Insider participants and secondly, by those running Windows 10 Home, who weren't allowed to defer - much less decline - an upgrade. By the time Microsoft said a build was suitable for business, it had been tested for anywhere from 10 to 12 months (about eight months in Insider, then two to four months by Windows 10 Home users).

In April, Microsoft disclosed that the firm will cede control over when feature upgrades are installed on Windows 10 Home through a new "Download and install now" setting. Although it's unclear exactly how the option will operate in practice and where Microsoft will draw the feature's boundaries, "Download and install now" may drain most of Windows 10's post-Insider testing pool.

Extending the testing periods of both the spring and fall upgrades could be one way to counter the decrease in tester numbers.

Windows 10 2003, for instance, could be tested by Insiders for more than a year (from February 2019, when Microsoft dropped it onto those signed up for Skip Ahead, to an expected April 2020 launch). Meanwhile, Windows 19 1909 would be "tested," as in "used to shake out bugs," for almost as long (from October 2018, when 1903 first hit Insider, through 1903's May 2019 release and post launch months, to 1909's October 2019 debut).

Under this speculative regime, Microsoft could legitimately claim that it was testing each Windows 10 build for a year or more. Would that change critics' minds about Windows updates' quality?

"This [would] give customers a bit more stability and reliability on the fall branch release each year and give them more confidence to put the majority of their users on that branch instead of delaying upgrading branches until half way through the branches' life cycles," Goettl argued.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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