Microsoft deviates from the norm, forcibly upgrades Windows 10 1903 with minor 1909 refresh

The latest 1903-to-1909 migration, a departure from the company's recent practices, may offer clues to how Microsoft plans to service Windows 10 next year.

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

Microsoft has begun forcibly upgrading Windows 10 PCs running version 1903 with that same year's 1909 faux upgrade as the former's retirement deadline waits just weeks away.

Windows 10 1903, the operating system refresh that Microsoft launched in late May 2019, will fall off the support list Dec. 8. On that date, Microsoft will issue the final set of security updates for 1903.

"To keep you protected and productive, we will soon begin updating devices running Windows 10, version 1903 to Windows 10, version 1909," Microsoft said on the Windows release health dashboard in a Nov. 9 message. "This update will install like a monthly update, resulting in a far faster update experience."

Microsoft's behavior here goes against the grain of its prior practice.

After ceding control to users running Windows 10 Home and unmanaged Windows 10 Pro in 2019 with the "Download and install now" option, Microsoft reserved the right to forcibly upgrade devices. If users refused to upgrade, Microsoft took it upon itself to do so when the in-place version neared support retirement. Previously, Microsoft began such forced upgrades about four months before a version was due to retire, and fulfilled the upgrade with the latest release, or at least the latest release that had been out in the real world for several months.

For example, when Windows 10 1803 neared support retirement last November, Microsoft used Windows 10 1903 — which had debuted in May 2019 — as the upgrade.

Because of the 18 months of support provided to Home and unmanaged Pro systems and the unpredictability of Windows 10's precise cadence, Microsoft's practice created a rhythm of replacing each first-half version with the following year's first-half refresh. Second-half versions — say, 1809 — would be replaced by Microsoft with the next year's second-half upgrade.

The result: Users of Home and unmanaged Pro could run a version of Windows 10 for approximately 12 months before having to replace it with something newer, a 50% reduction of upgrade processes from Microsoft's previous every-six-month tempo.

This Windows 10 upgrade from 1903 to 1909, though, would represent a departure from that practice, replacing a first-half update with a second-half update. Even more curious, those users who are forcibly migrated from 1903 to 1909 will have to have their PCs upgraded yet again fairly soon: Windows 10 1909's end of support comes on May 11, 2021. That means those whose PCs Microsoft get compulsory upgrades from 1903 to 1909 this month and next will have to be updated twice in six months.

What's Microsoft thinking?

Is Microsoft returning to an every-six-month cadence?

That remains unclear. But the 1903-to-1909 migration may offer clues on how Microsoft will service Windows 10 next year. (Of course, this could be a one-off, which Microsoft does now and again, in which case this speculation is just wasted pixels.)

First off, take a step back for the big picture. Here are some facts about Windows 10 servicing to keep in mind.

  • Most users running Windows 10 1903 have already upgraded to a newer version. According to metrics company AdDuplex, whose data overwhelmingly reflects individuals' PCs — and thus cants toward Home and unmanaged Pro — 1903 accounted for 22% of all Windows 10 versions in the last week of October, down from a high of 57% in October 2019. (Windows 10 1909 slipped slowly in share until August, when it fell to 34% from 44% in July.)
  • The only reason Microsoft can realistically accomplish this last-minute upgrade is because 1909 is not a true upgrade, but essentially a rerun of 1903. Their codebase is identical, with 1909 including fixes released between the two versions, and with little new functionality. As Microsoft pointed out, 1909 will be installed in much the same way as a monthly security update. (For more on Windows 10 1909 and Microsoft's move to a major-minor cadence for the OS, check out this story.)
  • While customers can now decide when to upgrade Windows 10 using the "Download and install now" option, there is substantial evidence that many don't bother, instead letting Microsoft execute upgrade as the current version nears end of support. That means Microsoft can control the ebb and flow of upgrade volume, as well as choose which version replaces the one on the PC.

From here, it appears that Microsoft is using its control over Home and unmanaged Pro PCs to switch some of those systems from preferring first-half upgrades to instead aligning with second-half updates.

Once Microsoft's wrapped up the migration to 1909 in early December, it will have to force a second upgrade on those machines before May 11. It could use Windows 10 2004 (this year's first-half upgrade) to return those devices to the first-half cycle, but that would mean another hustled refresh (2004's end-of-support is Dec. 14, 2021).

Better, one would think, to use Windows 10 20H2, this year's second-half update, and like 1909 a minor update at that. Window 10 20H2's retirement date is May 10, 2022, or about a year away from the time 1909 needs to be upgraded.

But why would Microsoft want to shift a block of Windows 10 PCs from the spring (first-half) to fall (second-half) upgrade? One answer: Microsoft's reported plan to release just one Windows 10 feature upgrade in 2021, and to ship that upgrade in next year's final six months. The reason for scaling back to one upgrade? Windows 10X, Microsoft's latest effort to build a light-weight OS that could compete with Google's Chrome OS and Apple's iPadOS.

As Computerworld has pointed out, shifting to a single upgrade in 2021 would mean that those who have adopted the first-half cycle — Windows 10 Home and unmanaged Pro PCs dominate it — will have to make alternate arrangements, simply because there won't be a spring release next year. Computerworld posited multiple approaches to the problem, including an earlier-than-usual upgrade from 2004 to 20H2, as well as adding support to extend the lifespan of 2004.

Instead, it looks like Microsoft's taken a different tack, and will use the 1903-to-1909 migration to prep for a single-upgrade 2021.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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