Microsoft pares Windows 10 feature upgrades to 1 a year

In a multi-part announcement spread across three blog posts, Microsoft has again given its Windows 10 update model a shake. Here's what the changes mean.

hand at keyboard with Windows logo

Microsoft has again given its Windows 10 update model a furious shake, voiding one of the foundational concepts of the "Windows as a service" (WaaS) strategy.

In a multi-part announcement spread across three blog posts, Microsoft on July 1 said it had begun testing of the next Windows 10 feature upgrade, which it has codenamed 19H2 but by the company's four-digit (yymm) labeling will be tagged with 1909 when it ships.

The first build of 19H2/1909 was released that same day to Windows Insider participants who set their PCs to receive the "Slow" ring versions. Insider will continue to deliver previews of 20H1 - the feature upgrade that will likely be dubbed 2003 to show it was completed in March 2020 - to testers on the "Fast" ring, as has been the case since February, when Microsoft debuted next year's edition.

Although Microsoft did not put the announcement's biggest news in plain English - instead relying on some marketing-speak, coded language and at least one new acronym - that news was impossible to miss.

Microsoft has ditched the idea of generating more than one feature upgrade annually, and will instead produce a single substantial refresh, apparently each spring.

Say what?

"The next feature update for Windows 10 (known in the Windows Insider Program as 19H2) will be a scoped set of features for select performance improvements, enterprise features and quality enhancements," John Cable, director of program management for the Windows servicing and delivery team, wrote in a July 1 post to a company blog.

In Cable's post and also in one by John Wilcox, a Microsoft WaaS evangelist, the company representatives laid out the changes. Because they underplayed the import of those alterations to the Windows 10 maintenance model, we'll explain what will be different and more importantly, what that means to the hundreds of millions of users of that OS.

Now we know what happened to 1909

In mid-February, Microsoft spurned precedence and started seeding the most adventurous Insider beta testers with builds from what it called the 20H1, or first half, 2020, development branch. Previously, Skip Ahead had been used to get the next feature upgrade to testers - that would have been the fall upgrade, 1909, or in Microsoft's code, 19H2 - but instead it jumped over 1909.

To explain the detour, Microsoft said: "Some things we are working on in 20H1 require a longer lead time." While that may well have been true, it was an unsatisfactory justification, what with Microsoft's recognition that regularity is something corporate customers value. Microsoft did promise that 19H2/1909 would be released, if not as usual, then "later this spring."

That was what Microsoft on Monday handed to Insiders on the Slow ring.

Weeks ago, Computerworld wondered what had happened to 1909 as Microsoft kept its lips zipped. The experts who weighed in rejected rumors that Microsoft would skip the upgrade, perhaps to get back on track after delays to the two previous. They each nailed it with their prognostication, with one predicting a shift to annual upgrades, the other forecasting a shift in schedule to Major in the spring, Minor in the fall.

On the surface, then, Microsoft remained committed to a twice-a-year slate, one it's hewn to since 2017, postponements and re-releases and all.

But that's not quite the truth.

Deciphering the announcement, part 1

"19H2 will be a scoped release with a smaller set of enhancements focused primarily on select performance improvements, enterprise features, and quality enhancements," said Wilcox in his post, which was directed at commercial customers, Microsoft's most important (emphasis added).

The sentence, almost a word-for-word repeat of Cable's post - and thus certainly part of Microsoft's corporate messaging - requires unpacking.

By scoped release, Wilcox seemed to be using the first word to define a limited release, one that has had strict boundaries set regarding the to-be-included functions and delivery date. (This is the first time Computerworld recalls Microsoft using the phrase "scoped release," but it can be found here and there in other software developers' commentary.) That analysis was bolstered by Wilcox saying, "Given this limited scope, we will deliver the 19H2 in a new way...." in the next paragraph (emphasis added).

His calling out smaller set and select are additional proof points that the fall's release would play the minor role to the spring release's major. Also worth noting are two of the three things listed as part of 19H2 - performance improvements and quality enhancements - almost always prominently appear in software developers' descriptions of their less-ambitious upgrades because, well, they don't have new features to trumpet.

Bottom line: 19H2 (or 1909, take your pick) will be a minor release that includes few, if any, new features.

Deciphering the announcement, part 2

"To deliver these updates in a less disruptive fashion, we will deliver this feature update in a new way, using servicing technology (like the monthly update process) for customers running the May 2019 Update who choose to update to the new release," stated Cable (emphasis added). "In other words, anyone running the May 2019 Update and updating to the new release will have a far faster update experience because the update will install like a monthly update."

This was the second important part of the announcement. Again, unpacking is necessary.

Because 19H2/1909 will be a minor refresh of Windows 10, it will be significantly smaller than past feature upgrades, which have been full OS replacements tipping the scales between 3GB and 5GB (4.6GB for the 64-bit version of 1903, for instance). Microsoft acknowledged that 19H2 will not be an OS replacement, at least when using this faster servicing approach, because it's restricting that to those running 1903 (the May 2019 Update, which went final in late May).

That means 19H2 will be much more like one of the cumulative updates issued several times monthly to Windows 10, which build on the already-in-place OS but do not replace it. (The most notable update is Patch Tuesday's, the "quality" update - Microsoft's word - that includes vulnerability patches and all kinds of non-security fixes.)

The monthly cumulative updates - and 19H2, too, when installed by 1903 and 1903 only - are small, and thus fast to download and install, because they include only the changes from the prior code. Over the last two years, Microsoft worked on reducing the size of the cumulative updates - as well as the number of update sizes - most recently with those deployed by 1809, the October 2018 Update that ended up delayed until early 2019.

It's worth repeating this: Windows 10 19H2/1909 will be an update to Windows 10 1903, not a true feature upgrade as customers have known them.

That's why the analogy to "service packs" made by many observers resonates. For the forgetful, service packs were the cumulative updates of the past - Windows 7 and earlier - that integrated already-issued fixes with the original code. They rarely included new features. Microsoft last issued one in February 2011, when it released Windows 7's Service Pack 1, or SP1; Windows 7 SP1 is the currently-supported version of the 2009 operating system, set to drop from support in January 2020.

Windows 10 19H2/1909 will include all that was in Windows 10 1903, plus additional bug fixes, performance improvements and stability enhancements, but few if any new features. Sounds like a service pack to us, too.

Deciphering the announcement, part 3

"We will begin releasing 19H2 builds to Windows Insiders in the Slow ring starting today ((July 1)), with new features being offered in future Insider builds as they are ready," Cable wrote in his post (emphasis added). "Some Insiders may not see the new features right away as we are using a controlled feature rollout (CFR) to gain better feedback on overall build quality."

This process was both clear in its purpose and vague in its execution. It also represents a mix of old and new. First, the clear: previews of 19H2/1909 shown to Insider participants will include off-by-default features that can be, but not necessarily will be, switched "on" at some later date. Each feature will first be tested with a small subgroup of Insiders; as bugs are uncovered and quashed, and Microsoft becomes convinced the feature works as intended without significant negative side effects, others will be added to the test pool. At some point, presumably, everyone has it enabled by default.

This "controlled feature rollout" procedure is something Microsoft already uses in a much more general fashion when it favors the PCs it believes will not balk at installing a feature OS upgrade. But CFR, named that or not, has long been a hallmark of some browser makers - notably Google (Chrome) and Mozilla (Firefox) - who tuck new features into an update but then don't immediately turn them on, sometimes waiting days or weeks to do so, other times slowing adding enabling more users' copies over time in the hope that any bug won't afflict everyone.

Microsoft's CFR closely resembles Chrome's and Firefox's deliberate "switch on" approaches, even to how they turn on a feature or option. "Specific to CFRs, we may ship features in these updates turned off by default and turn them on independently of bits getting downloaded to Insiders' PCs," Microsoft's Wilcox added.

That's how Chrome and Mozilla do it, too.

Secondly, however, there's the vague: Although Microsoft said it would use CFR while it runs 19H2/1909 through Insider-based testing, it said nothing of relying on the rollout tactic at or after launch.

CFR-generated prudence would seem to be a smart move for any new feature in 19H2/1909, seeing as the truly-new would have little time with Insiders (July 1 through a September debut, or two months and change). Or, if the new feature(s) in 19H2/1909 are actually items brought forward from 20H1 testing (the Insider focus since February), a leisurely distribution would also be a good idea, since the integration with the earlier upgrade might have been run through little or no testing.

On the other hand, CFR-based activation of a deployed 19H2/1909, especially on corporate PCs, could be a pain point for IT administrators if Microsoft, not themselves, were in charge of deciding when a feature pops on. Enterprise IT does not like surprises, one reason why resistance quickly grew against Windows 10's twice-annual upgrade cadence and 18-month support lifecycle.

Questions remain, but here's the bottom line so far

Not surprisingly, there are unanswered questions about the new process. It's likely answers won't be known until this fall or even later than that, after 19H2/1909 wraps up Insider testing and reaches customers. But Computerworld believes there's enough information now to paint a rough picture of how the changes reflect the evolving Windows 10 feature upgrade process.

  • The fall upgrade - 1909 - will be a delimited update, akin to a monthly cumulative release rather than a full feature upgrade. It will sport performance and reliability improvements and perhaps a few new features. It will not be an OS replacement, as all previous upgrades have been.
  • 1909 will be deployable via Windows Update or Windows Update for Business using a servicing mechanism similar to that used by the monthly updates. Via those update services, 1909 will only be available to users already running 1903, aka May 2019 Update.
  • For commercial customers running 1809 (October 2018 Update) or earlier, the upgrade process remains unchanged. "You will have the option to update to 19H2 just as you did with previous releases," Microsoft said, meaning that 1909 will be deployable using, say, Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) or System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM).
  • Windows 10 1909 is, more than anything, a "service pack" for 1903. For users who did not - and will not - run 1903, Windows 10 1909 is essentially 1903 plus some improvements.
  • Because of the above - most importantly the lack of new features - it's difficult to view 1909 as a credible feature upgrade on its own. Microsoft has, then, reduced its 2019 output to one feature upgrade (1903) and one service pack for that feature upgrade (1909).
  • It's implausible that Microsoft has crafted this as a one-off, in other words 1909-as-service-pack for a one-time rollout (perhaps to simply make up the time lost to delays by 1809 and 1903). This major (spring release) and very minor (fall release) will be the new normal going forward and last ... well, until Microsoft again changes its mind.

There are other aspects of the latest upend to Windows upgrades, which Computerworld covers in this companion piece, that will influence enterprise scheduling and affect Microsoft's penchant for pressing consumers to act as testers for commercial customers.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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