Microsoft's Windows 10 update strategy is showing strains

Microsoft's Windows 10 update strategy is showing strains

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Windows 10’s rapid release machinery and short-lived support schemes showed some strain in 2017, as Microsoft reduced the number of annual feature upgrades and felt enough pressure to extend the lifespan of a 2015 version well into next year.

But the radical release-and-support strategy, which Microsoft asserts has transformed Windows into a service, has not resonated with every customer. Windows 10 upgrades come too frequently, leaving too little time for adequate compatibility testing of critical applications. Support is too fleeting, with each upgrade maintained for just 18 months, theoretically requiring seven migrations during the same timespan when previously only one was necessary.

Microsoft can, and should, address the stress, industry analysts said in interviews and emails, by sanding off the sharpest edges of its policies. The result? A more palatable “service” that would retain the benefits of a commercial operating system able to respond to an evolving digital world.

One upgrade a year is plenty

“I have always felt this whole cadence, I refuse to call it a service as the service only benefits Microsoft, made no sense,” said Michael Cherry of Directions on Microsoft, a research firm dedicated to tracking the Redmond, Wash. company. “My gut [tells me] where this will end up: A once-a-year new version, or ‘feature update,’ [because] they are running out of compelling things to add.”

Currently, Microsoft plans to issue two feature upgrades annually, one in the spring, another in the fall. (Its target release windows of March and September have yet to be hit.) That cadence, which was made official in April, was a formal downscaling of a more ambitious schedule that would have dropped a new version into customers’ laps three times a year, or every four months.

Another analyst, Michael Silver of Gartner, concurred. “Enterprises need to have a way to do one update a year. That would go a long way to resolve this,” Silver said, referring to the issues enterprises have with the Windows-as-a-service (WaaS) model. “Microsoft is under pressure to make the upgrades easier and less disruptive. [But] I don’t think that they’ve done that.”

Reducing the number of feature upgrades to one – from the original three to the current two – would be an easy way to curtail the disruption, but it would also compromise a major principle of the whole WaaS doctrine. Even so, annual upgrades of Windows 10 would triple the number that marked much of Microsoft’s history, when it shipped new versions at three-year intervals.

It’s not impossible for enterprises to skip one of the every-six-month feature upgrades Microsoft now plans – doing in practice what Cherry and Silver said the company should formalize – but as Computerworld pointed out in April, IT staffs would have to hustle to replace an outgoing version of Windows 10 under the tight support constraints.

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