Windows 10 Creators Update in the homestretch: Here's what's next

With a flurry of recent Windows 10 preview releases, anyone in the Windows Insider Program Fast ring has a right to feel exhausted. What comes next? Based on past development cycles, here's what you can expect.

If you want to know how Windows as a service works, the blueprint is in plain sight.

I've been following the progression of the Windows 10 Creators Update release with interest for the past nine months. As we approach the official release date of the third big feature update to Windows 10 since its debut in July 2015, it's worth examining the details of the development process, especially as it follows the same template set in earlier feature updates.

(Note: I'm talking about PC builds only, not Windows 10 Mobile, which sometimes follows a slightly different track.)

This week's release of Windows 10 build number 15063 to the Windows Insider Program Fast ring contains some important milestones, starting with the About box, which drops the Insider Preview label. This is just Windows 10 or Windows 10 Pro.

1703-build-16053.jpg

No more Insider Preview tag.

In addition, it no longer has a watermark on the desktop branding it as an Insider Preview release.

A check of Winver.exe also reveals that this build has no expiration date. Compare that with a preview build released one month ago today, which will stop working on May 15, 2017.

Although it's possible that 15063 is the final build number for version 1703, that's by no means a foregone conclusion. Last year's Anniversary Update release, version 1607, went through three builds after it hit this stage, finally settling on build 14393.

But we're close, very close.

We entered the homestretch with the release of build 15048 to the Fast ring on March 3. After nearly two dozen previous releases, this was the first one this year with no "What's New" section in its release notes.

That build was released to the Slow ring on March 8.

Since then, Windows Insider Program members in the Fast ring have seen a flurry of five builds released in 10 days, with one (15058) released to the Slow ring. None of those March releases included any new features but instead had progressively shorter lists of bug fixes. Notably, the first build in that sequence incremented the Windows version number from 1607 to 1703.

That exhausting pace will stop soon and a build will be declared the Release Preview.

That build will be the base for the final release, with a major build number that won't change, but it won't be the final release. Instead, if previous experience is a guide, anyone who installs the Release Preview bits can expect to receive a series of updates, swatting last-minute bugs that light up on Microsoft's telemetry dashboards.

Based on previous development cycles, you can expect roughly two weeks between the Release Preview and the Current Branch release, which incorporates those interim updates. Windows Insider Program members, of course, will already be running these bits. Those who've held off will be able to download the Current Branch release from all the usual places.

This will be the biggest test ever of Microsoft's Windows Update network, with more than 400 million PCs eligible for the upgrade. That's well over an exabyte of data in total, which is why that big update will roll out gradually to the general public.

Some nontrivial number of PCs will hold off on those updates for at least four months, as network administrators configure the devices for the Current Branch for Business.

Microsoft has historically "throttled" these big releases on Windows Update, sending them in rolling waves that start with devices that have the highest compatibility scores and thus the greatest likelihood of successfully upgrading.

Subsequent waves will roll out slowly to other devices, with Microsoft engineers again watching telemetry for problems that can be fixed with cumulative updates that could come more often than the usual monthly Patch Tuesday release. (Because this is a brand-new code base, these cumulative updates in the first month or two can be very small and install relatively quickly.)

Roughly four months after the Current Branch release, that build, with four months of cumulative updates under its belt, will be considered for release to the Current Branch for Business. That might be as early as August, although it could be delayed for a month or two if unforeseen issues arise.

Meanwhile, as Microsoft closes the books on the Redstone 2 development cycle, Redstone 3 will kick into high gear, with an official marketing name akin to Anniversary Update and Creators Update, as well as a projected release date before the end of this year.

And the cycle begins again.

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