Here's how Microsoft may slow down to only one Windows 10 upgrade a year

If Microsoft dumps its major/minor release cadence for Windows 10, opting for a lone feature update every year, the result could be chaotic for some users.

Microsoft Windows update cycle arrows with overlay a laptop and mobile phone.
Microsoft / IDG

If Microsoft decides to release just one Windows 10 feature upgrade annually, some customers — notably consumers and small businesses running unmanaged Windows 10 Pro PCs — will be forced into more work than they'd banked on.

According to Microsoft-watcher Mary Jo Foley, who writes for ZDNet, the Redmond, Wash. developer "may end up releasing just one feature update per year for Windows 10 starting in 2021 to free up more engineers to be able to focus on both Windows 10X and Windows 10."

Windows 10X will be a variant of the extant Windows 10, a spin-off of sorts, one that will, at least initially, run web and Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps only, sport a more streamlined UI and execute apps within containers — virtual machine-like creations that separate app workspaces from the operating system. Windows 10X appears to be Microsoft's latest effort to craft a lighter-weight OS, one designed with mobile devices foremost in mind, to compete with, say, Google's Chrome OS and Apple's iPadOS.

With Windows 10X in the mix, Foley's sources told her, Microsoft may release that next spring and forego the usual Windows 10 first-half feature upgrade. That pattern would continue, she said, with annual Windows 10X refreshes as yyH1 (22H1, 23H1 and so on) and Windows 10's as yyH2 (21H2, 22H2, and the like).

Computerworld has urged Microsoft to slow the pace of Windows 10 upgrades from the current major-minor, twice-a-year (which translates to about 1.25 annually) to a simpler, single refresh every 12 months. Whether the company does so because Windows 10X is running interference or simply as another sop to customer "feedback," a.k.a. complaints, doesn't matter.

What does matter is how Microsoft gets customers from one tempo to another.

Warning: Chaos ahead on the Windows update highway

Reducing the frequency of Windows 10 feature upgrades will result in the same thing that happens when traffic is suddenly shunted from, say, two lanes to just one: Confusion, with chaos layered overtop.

But with Windows 10, it's not so much the fact that the pace is being halved from twice to once a year, but that each feature upgrade under the two-a-year system has been adopted by different sets of customers.

The fall upgrade, yyH2 — or under the old labeling regime, yy09 — has been the preference of organizations and businesses running Windows 10 Enterprise or Windows 10 Education since Microsoft extended support for each upgrade to 30 months for those SKUs (stock-keeping units). It's not surprising that Microsoft — in Foley's telling — will continue to refresh Windows 10 each fall, as these are its most important customers, its revenue bread-and-butter customers. They won't have to change anything they're doing.

Others, however, who have been grabbing all upgrades or gotten stuck on the spring update, will have to change their habits. That would be those running Windows 10 Home and Windows 10 Pro (the latter, when unmanaged by IT), whom Microsoft allows just 18 months of support.

People stuck on the spring upgrade will be the most affected by Microsoft slowing release tempo to once a year, and that in the fall. Here's why.

In 2019, Microsoft upended how it delivers feature upgrades to Home and unmanaged Pro systems. Previously, the company had force-fed those machines every upgrade, even decided when a PC received the refresh. But in April of that year, Microsoft announced the "Download and install now" (DaIN) option, which let customers manually trigger the upgrade at the time of their choosing. Microsoft only interceded if users ignored DaIN and then only as the version's support neared expiration. Approximately four months before that end-of-support date, Microsoft would begin forcibly upgrading to the most-current version.

For several reasons, including the timing of that decision as well as the earlier debacle over Windows 10 1809, a majority of users ended up on Windows 10 1903, what Microsoft also called "Windows 10 May 2019 Update." And because Microsoft's forced upgrades happen only at the end of a version's support lifetime, all who disregarded DaIN received just one feature update a year. Once on, say, the spring upgrade, the mechanics of DaIN insured that they stayed there.

What third-party data that is available backs this. According to analytics vendor AdDuplex, nearly 6 out of every 10 Windows 10 users (58%) have been on a spring upgrade the past six months. The vast bulk of those ran Windows 10 1903. In June, Windows 10 1903 accounted for 46% of all Windows 10, with the newest spring upgrade, Windows 10 2004, a.k.a. "Windows 10 May 2020 Update," in for another 7%. (Also in the mix, about 3% running the outdated, no-longer-supported Windows 10 1803.)

In a world where Microsoft continued to release two upgrades a year, most of those now on Windows 1903 — which exits support in early December — would migrate to Windows 10 2004 this year. Next year, they would move to Windows 10 21H1 (the new nomenclature Microsoft's selected for naming versions, using yyH1 to designate the upgrade issued in the first half of the year and yyH2 to label the upgrade of the second half). From 21H1, they would have shifted to 22H1, then to 23H1, and so on.

But as Figure 1 illustrates, scaling back to just one Windows 10 feature upgrade a year — and that as 21H2 because 22H1 became the roll-out of Windows 10X — will be a problem: Windows 10 21H1 won't exist.

Win10 calendar IDG/Gregg Keizer

If Windows 10's upgrade schedule changes to once annually, some users are going to be unprepared. Note the 21H1 update: It may be the initial release of Windows 10X, making 21H2 the sole Windows 10 refresh for next year.

What then, will those who earlier this year (2020) were on 1903/19H1 and by year's end on 2004/20H1, do? Microsoft won't be able to migrate them to Windows 10 21H1 next year (2021) simply because 21H1 won't be there.

Windows 21H1 upgrade IDG/Gregg Keizer

Without the next year's 21H1 upgrade — that's been dropped, remember — and not enough time to get onto 21H2, what are users, or Microsoft, to do?

Nor will there be enough of an overlap of 20H1 and 21H2 for an upgrade. The two months — October and November of 2021 — would simply not allow the usually cautious migration Microsoft prefers.

So, what's Microsoft to do?

No spring, forward to fall

Microsoft's job will be to get those now on a spring upgrade to a fall version, any fall version.

At the moment, users running Windows 10 1903 (19H1 in the new labeling) are being served this year's spring upgrade, Windows 10 2004 (20H1). "We are increasing the number of devices selected to update automatically to Windows 10, version 2004, that are approaching end of service," Microsoft stated here.

Because 1903's support ends Dec. 8, that switch from 1903 to 2004 will continue for the next four months and change.

So far, so good. But once on 2004, where will users go?

Microsoft could force them from 2004 to this fall's 20H2. (If Microsoft's dual naming conventions don't make you loony, you're a much more stable genius than those of us here at Computerworld.) There will be a significant minority who do that in any case, just as there have been large portions of the pool who have flipped from, say, Windows 1903 to last fall's 1909. AdDuplex, for example, pegged June's 1909 share at approximately 37%, or about 9 percentage points under 1903's.

Sometime in 2021 — January, for instance — Microsoft could notify Windows Home and unmanaged Windows Pro users that it would move them earlier than usual, and not to Windows 10 21H1 but to 20H2 instead. It could give a three-month's warning before it began forcibly upgrading 2004/20H1 to 20H2 starting in April 2021, and take four months — through July — to move everyone to 20H2. (That version exits support Dec. 14, 2021.)

From that point, Microsoft would transition users from 20H2 to 21H2 during late 2021 and early 2022, then 21H2 to 22H2 12 months later.

Figure 3 shows this in action.

figure 3 IDG/Gregg Keizer

It looks chaotic — and maybe it would be — but Microsoft could forcibly move users from the latest spring feature upgrade to the fall's.

More support, please

Microsoft has an easier way to push Home and unmanaged Pro PCs onto a fall feature upgrade.

By extending the support lifecycle of Windows 10 20H1 by, for example, just six months — from 18 to 24 months total — Microsoft can simplify the shift.

Support extension wouldn't be new for Microsoft; it's done so numerous times. The most recent was earlier this year, when Redmond added six months to Windows 10 1809 so that the version will exit support Nov. 10 rather than the original May 12. Microsoft cited the just-getting-started coronavirus pandemic as the reason for the extension.

Figure 4 shows how adding six months of support to Windows 10 20H1, a.k.a. 2004, will let users now stuck on spring upgrades pivot to the fall upgrades.

figure 4 IDG/Gregg Keizer

By adding six months to 20H1's support lifetime, Microsoft could move users to 21H2, the year's only Windows 10 feature upgrade.

Under Computerworld's scenario, a Microsoft announcement of 20H1's support extension would be as good as a shout that the company will soon halve feature upgrade releases. However, it's unlikely that would happen before Microsoft revealed that Windows 10X would ship next spring. Why? Because Windows 10 20H1 wouldn't be retired until May 10, 2022, if Microsoft gave it six more months of support.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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