Why Windows 10 1909 should not be a one-off

It's never easy figuring out what Microsoft is up to when it comes to its plans for Windows 10. But the way it's handled updates in 2019 could point to what it plans to do in 2020 and beyond.

Microsoft Windows 10 laptop

Microsoft last week released Windows 10 version 1909, an oddball update that was far more rehash than refresh.

Purportedly the second upgrade for the year, in reality 1909 — also dubbed the Windows 10 November 2019 Update — has so few new features that Windows veterans have compared it to old-school service packs,, the feature-free collections of fixes Microsoft used to issue every couple of years for the then-current OS. (The last time Redmond released a service pack was 2011, when it issued SP1 for Windows 7, the operating system staring at retirement in less than two months.)

Although Microsoft has never given a straightforward rationale for this change to its upgrade model, outsiders have speculated that it was linked to the disastrous rollout of the Windows 10 October 2018 Update, a.k.a. 1809. Pulled from distribution almost as soon as it landed — the upgrade erased customer data — 1809 was months late getting to users. To restore the schedule, the thinking went, Microsoft skipped an upgrade by building an un-upgrade.

Because Windows 10 1909 is so unusual in the context of Microsoft's OS-as-a-service framework, it isn't surprising that users have questions. (So did Computerworld.) What's been surprising has been Microsoft's silence. It hasn't bothered to answer many of those questions.

At the top of that list: Whether 1909 is a one-off or the new normal.

Commercial customers, in particular, need an answer. For planning purposes, they require definitive schedules and information about update content and impact. The last thing enterprises want is seat-of-the-pants servicing that bobs and weaves from one model to another.

When Computerworld asked a Microsoft spokeswoman whether the company would repeat 1909's approach in the fall of 2020, she called up the firm's standard decline-to-comment line of, "We have nothing more to share at this time."

That's an odd way to inform customers about Windows servicing and maintenance policies.

Computerworld has argued before that Microsoft will almost certainly continue the major-minor cadence of a true feature upgrade in the spring, followed by a rehash in the fall that bundles a very limited amount of new functionality with all the fixes issued in the interim. Why? Because it would be both a wasted opportunity to legitimately slow the Windows 10 change tempo and a waste of resources to craft this alternate upgrade system and then throw it in a ditch like so many empty soda cans.

But forecasting a Microsoft decision does not make it so. The company has stumped outside observers before, many times, in actions taken with Windows.

That's why Computerworld's come up with other reasons for Microsoft to stick with this model, characteristics of the major-minor tempo that benefit customers, traits that, if Microsoft reneges, will disappear, to users' detriment.

Maybe someone's listening.

Consistency counts in corporate

Microsoft knows this. That's why it pledged a consistent, predictable upgrade cadence in April 2017 after fumbling the initial year of servicing by releasing the first upgrade three months after the operating system's launch, then letting nearly nine months pass before issuing a second.

Although the Redmond, Wash. developer has had trouble sticking to the schedule's implied release dates, overall it stayed consistent in 2017 and 2018: It delivered two upgrades annually, in April and October (although the last in the four-upgrade series, 1809, was a spectacular failure). Things went slightly south in 2019, with upgrades launched in May and November.

More troubling, though, is the idea that after requiring customers to adapt to Windows 10 1909's different servicing — from sharing updates with the prior 1903 to the "on switch" of the "enablement package" — Microsoft might simply say "never mind" and revert to its earlier model, with two feature-rich upgrades each year.

If the company does return to its 2017-2018 servicing plan, Computerworld believes it will have blown an opportunity to give customers what they've long asked for — a slower tempo — while saving face by retaining the illusion of two annual upgrades.

Not to mention blown consistency out of the water.

Stretching support

One of the biggest benefits from the "service packing" of Windows 10 1909 has been an off-the-books support extension.

No, Microsoft did not monkey with the Windows 10 support lifecycle yet again. (The last time it did so was September 2018.) But the fact that 1909 is essentially 1903 — remember, they "share a common core operating system with an identical set of system files" (Microsoft's words) — means that supporting the latter is supporting the former. (Just as testing the latter is testing the former; more on that in a bit.)

And yes, there are some new-feature differences to 1909, but they are both minor and, for commercial customers, deferrable.

Let's do the math.

Windows 10 1903 launched on May 21, 2019. Windows 10 1909's end-of-support date for Enterprise and Education will be May 10, 2022. That's 11 days shy of 36 months, or 3 years — about 6 months longer than the standard support lifecycle of 30 months for an Enterprise/Education fall refresh.

A corporate timetable could easily go this way.

  • Windows 10 1903 is tested and piloted in the organization for several months.
  • When Microsoft gave the business-ready green light to 1903 on Sept. 26, the organization began a multi-month process — say three months — to deploy the upgrade.
  • The organization wraps up the 1903 deployment around the end of December.
  • During the six weeks between Windows 10's 1909 release (Nov. 12) and the year-end finish of 1903 deployment, the organization tests and pilots the new features Microsoft added to 1909. There's no need to test the rest of 1909 since that upgrade is identical to 1903, which the org has already tested.

At this point, Windows 10 1903 has about 11 months of support left. (It's a spring upgrade, and thus allows just 18 months total for all editions, including Enterprise/Education.) But with a quick flip of a switch, that 11 months can stretch.

  • After the first of the year, the organization's administrators deploy the "enablement package" — think of it as the switch that turns on the handful of new features hidden in 1903 and transforms it into 1909.
  • With the enablement package installed across the organization, its Windows PCs now sport 1909, which will be supported until mid-May 2022.
  • If the organization completes the transformation from 1903 to 1909 by the end of January 2020, those PCs will be in support for approximately 27 more months.
  • Total in-use support of 1903/1909 for the organization: From late-September 2019 until mid-May 2022, or around 32 months.

In comparison, if an organization waits until Microsoft gives the business-ready signal for a fall upgrade to Enterprise, it might have, at most, 26 months or so of in-use support.

The commonalities between 1903 and 1909 will also provide new flexibility to firms running Enterprise or Education. For example, they could test, pilot and deploy 1903 as they have previous upgrades, then as that version nears its December 2020 end-of-life, roll out the enablement package to switch Windows 10 to 1909, extending support another 18 months, to May 2022.

If Microsoft abandons the major-minor servicing demonstrated by 1903-1909, it will have shortened the effective support lifecycle by about six months for its most important customers.

That would be a pity.

Testing, testing

Mostly unrecognized is that Windows 10 1909 was in testing for longer than a year by the time it launched last week.

Windows 10 1903 — 1909 is 1903 plus a smattering of new features — first reached Windows Insider testers in July 2018 and stayed in the beta program for more than 10 months, launching in late May 2019.

Since the May release, 1903/1909 underwent field testing — as in, 1903 was being used by customers in production settings — through the following five-plus months. Most of those running 1903 between May and November were, of course, consumers equipped with the Home version or, unknown numbers of workers at small- and mid-size businesses running Windows 10 Pro. Still, testing is testing.

Just how many testers were there? That's unclear. At the end of October, approximately 57% of all Windows 10 users ran 1903, according to AdDuplex, an analytics vendor that relies on data from Windows app-equipped PCs. Microsoft recently upped its numbers claim for Windows 10 to 900 million devices, which would put AdDuplex's assertion at around 510 million. In any case, it's a lot.

A major-minor release scheme like 1903/1909's would provide even more testing in 2020 if Microsoft hangs onto the cadence. Microsoft started pitching Windows 10 20H1 — that last designating the upgrade for release in the first half of next year — in February 2019. (It's still in the Windows Insider program.) Assuming Microsoft launches Windows 10 2003 (the official ID for 20H1) in April and then follows with 2009 — a service pack-style retread of 2003 — in October, the 2003-2009 pair would have accumulated 19 months of testing.

Although an increase in the quantity of testing (in months) doesn't necessarily mean a boost in the quality of testing, it couldn't hurt. Microsoft doesn't want a repeat of the 1809 imbroglio; the shift to longer testing periods may have been in reaction to last year's troubles.

At the least, the major-minor cadence lets Microsoft start testing far earlier than it would if it slid back to equal annual upgrades (under the 1903-1909 plan, Microsoft should start running 21H1 (2103) through Insider no later than February). The company can even make a creditable case that it's testing each feature upgrade for more than a year before release.

Doubling back to the older refresh tempo, then, would return Microsoft to the testing regime that resulted in its biggest OS snafu since Windows Vista's development delays. Who wants that?

Signals to watch for

Although Microsoft inexplicably won't tell customers how it will service Windows 10 in 2020 and beyond, that stance is part and parcel for the company.

In February 2019, Microsoft told users that because "some things we are working on in 20H1 require a longer lead time," it was jumping from 19H1 (Windows 10 1903) to the following year's spring upgrade, skipping the fall refresh, which Insider spokespeople dubbed 19H2. "We will begin releasing 19H2 bits to Insiders later this spring after we get 19H1 nearly finished and ready," wrote Dona Sarkar and Brandon LeBlanc.

But Microsoft did not explain the nature of the impending second-half upgrade — 19H2 or 1909 or whatever one cares to call it — until July 1. During the intervening four and a half months, customers had no idea what form 1909 would take, although the lack of information was in itself a clue that it would not be a feature upgrade as Microsoft had previously defined it.

So, while users shouldn't be shocked if Microsoft stays mum about next year's second-half upgrade, there are some signs that could point to its decision.

At the moment, Windows 10 20H1 (2003) remains in Insider testing. At some point — likely within the next 10 to 12 weeks — Microsoft will announce that version's successor and begin distributing it to beta participants. If Microsoft repeats this year's switcheroo and replaces 20H1/2003 with early code from 21H1 (Windows 10 2103), the jig is up: The second-half upgrade will be, like 1909, a rerun of 2003.

On the other hand, if Microsoft does not skip Windows 10 2009 but instead slots that into Insider as 2003 wraps up, the company will revert to the 2017-2018 model of two relatively equal feature upgrades, each containing significant changes in the OS's functionality.

Another potential clue to Microsoft's future machinations came earlier this month when the company said it was scrubbing the "Skip Ahead" ring in Windows Insider. Other Insider rings are Slow and Fast, which will remain, and Release Preview, which will also be retained.

(Insider used Skip Ahead earlier this year to put volunteers on 20H1 rather than the expected 1909. As the spring's upgrade (Windows 10 1903) neared completion, the program shifted 20H1 to the standard Fast ring.)

Microsoft didn't cite a reason for halting Skip Ahead. "Going forward, we will not be offering Skip Ahead as an option for Insiders to sign-up for," said LeBlanc in a Nov. 5 post. "Our goal is to provide everyone in the Fast ring the freshest builds at the same time."

Skip Ahead was just that. "This is a unique version of the Fast ring that allows Insiders to 'skip ahead' to Windows 10 Insider Preview builds in the next release of Windows while we are finishing up a current release," Microsoft said in online documentation that has not yet been revised to delete references to the option.

Skip Ahead let Microsoft transition testing from one upgrade to the next, getting an early start on beta testing — say, the fall upgrade, even though the spring's wasn't completed. It was also a tacit admission that the tight release schedule — a feature upgrade every six months — wouldn't let the Insider program wait until one upgrade had wrapped up testing before beginning previewing the successor.

But if the schedule is relaxed — as it was in 2019 — so that there really is just one feature upgrade in the year, followed by a service pack echo that breaks virtually no new feature ground, there would be no need to rush from build to build. For example, Microsoft could wrap up testing of 20H1/2003 early next year — say in February — take a short break while it preps that true upgrade for release, then resume testing in the Fast ring with the first draft of 21H1 (2103). After all, it would have nearly a year to beta test 21H1/2103.

Computerworld interprets the demise of Skip Ahead as a signal, a weak signal, but still a signal, that Microsoft will repeat the major-minor model in 2020.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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