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Windows 10 at six months: Ready for primetime?

Windows 10 has been available to the public for six months this week. By the numbers, it's been a hit, with 200 million active users as of the first of the year. Here's my midterm report.

Windows 10 six months: Ready for primetime?

Microsoft released Windows 10 to the public six months ago this week

The first major feature update arrived in mid-November, almost exactly four months after the initial release. That November update, dubbed version 1511, included some hugely important features for Microsoft's enterprise customers, including greater control over updates and virtual TPM support in Hyper-V virtual machines.

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The idea of delivering big feature updates two or three times a year is unprecedented in the history of Windows, which historically has saved those features for "big bang" releases every three years or so.

During the past six months, Microsoft has been delivering cumulative updates every month. That's another major shift in the way Windows 10 works compared to its predecessors.

There's a tendency among casual observers and tech reporters to focus on the consumer experience. That's only natural, of course, because most modern tech reporters are themselves consumers, and they have little or no experience with the challenges that IT pros face in securing and managing computing resources in a business setting.

Yes, the consumer experience is important, but the business story is arguably even more so, and so far it's been mostly ignored in the mainstream press.

As of the beginning of 2016, Microsoft claimed that more than 200 million devices were actively running Windows 10 worldwide, with about 10 percent of that number in enterprise and education.

With that context, it's time to give Windows 10 a mid-year status report. What's working? What's not? And what's next?

The user experience

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The Windows 10 user experience is a huge improvement over its Windows 8 predecessor, which was a usability and training nightmare even for the most open-minded users. The problem was even worse on touchscreen devices.

The return of the Start menu, which leverages and extends familiar habits, is probably the most important addition, but there's also a level of polish and sophistication in Windows 10 that was sorely missing three years ago and was only partially fixed by the changes in Windows 8.1.

Even with those changes, there's still a training and deployment burden for organizations as they migrate from Windows 7 to 10. You can't just plop a new OS on the desktop and expect end users to be immediately productive. That's potentially an even bigger headache for small businesses, which don't have the luxury of large training budgets.

But planning for that migration is essential. The clock is ticking on Windows 7; no one wants to see it hang on past its expiration date as Windows XP has.

There's still plenty of room for improvement in the Windows 10 user experience, of course. The process of customizing the Start menu layout, for example, is still tedious. And there are still some reliability issues, at least under some conditions and on some hardware, that cause the Windows shell to stop working, so that clicking Start appears to do nothing. Making the Windows shell rock solid should be a top priority in future upgrades.

Automatic updates and upgrades

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One of the most controversial design features in Windows 10 is its new update model, which removes the ability of consumers to control which updates get installed. Businesses have more knobs and levers, thanks to the November 2015 addition of Windows Update for Business, but those tools are made for IT pros and are either invisible or frighteningly complex for less sophisticated users.

Still, this is a vision of where the future of computing has to be, and there really is no pain-free path. Asking users, even technically sophisticated ones, to make individual trust decisions over dozens of updates per month is ludicrous. The result, historically, is predictable: many users succumb to information overload or bad advice by disabling updates completely.

The addition of cumulative updates is also a long-term win, with the potential to end the nightmare of the clean install followed by hundreds of updates.

But in the short term, there will be some discomfort. The big silver lining is that widespread use of telemetry should make it easier to identify problematic updates more quickly than ever.

Management and deployment

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Most modern tech reporters know nothing about the challenges of modern IT infrastructure. If you're an IT pro in a regulated industry such as healthcare or financial services, you have major compliance requirements that a consumer never has to think about.

IT pros have to think about data security, too, which involves much more than just installing an encryption program.

So for anyone who has the sometimes thankless job of managing large-scale Windows deployments, prepare for accelerated change not just in Windows on the desktop but in your management tools as well.

System Center Configuration Manager, for example, is now on a rapid refresh cycle similar to that of Windows 10. You're probably going to have to manage hybrid infrastructure, with on-premises Active Directory and the cloud based Azure Active Directory connected to one another.

And you're going to have to adjust to in-place upgrades for enterprise deployments, instead of the familiar and predictable "wipe and load" process.

Good luck.

Security and privacy

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The single most ignorant articles I've read about Windows 10 assert that it's fundamentally the same as Windows 7, in terms of security, because after all Windows 7 is still receiving security updates monthly, right?

That argument ignores the massive investments in security in Windows 10 and the hardware it runs on. These are fundamental architectural changes that can't be delivered in patches.

The fact that Windows 10 has a built-in hypervisor will elicit a blank stare from most consumers (and most tech bloggers, for that matter). But that feature unlocks a wide array of security features that can prevent some of today's most common cyberattacks.

Likewise, Secure Boot and built-in device encryption are a very big deal, and only possible on a modern device with a modern OS. If you buy a new PC that includes UEFI firmware and a Trusted Platform Module, Windows 7 will have no idea what to do with those pieces.

In fact, downgrading to Windows 7 on a new PC will make you less secure and more vulnerable to the most pernicious forms of malware, rootkits and bootkits. If you think that possibility is only theoretical, read this recent discussion thread from a few people whose Windows 7 PCs have been victimized by ransomware that took over the Master Boot Record. That couldn't have happened on Windows 10.

And I haven't even mentioned Windows Hello, which bakes two-factor authentication into Windows 10 but so far is only supported by a handful of devices. On my Surface Pro 4, automatically signing in by simply looking at the screen is practically magical.

As to privacy, most of what you've read is based on overblown fears and occasionally outright lies. But Microsoft could do a better job of explaining privacy options and trade-offs during the initial setup process.

Troubleshooting

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Let's agree on a few things up front: No computing platform is perfect, especially one that has to work with literally hundreds of millions of hardware configurations. Troubleshooting is a tedious process and sometimes a waste of time, with the best solution being to just do a clean install.

On Windows 7, that process is horribly messy. It requires professional help, often from less-than-competent techs who are more driven by profit motives than customer satisfaction (I'm looking at you, Geek Squad). And even if you know what you're doing, it takes a long time.

Windows 8 added refresh and reset options that improved the process slightly, but those options required OEM cooperation and were still messy.

Windows 10 turns the process of resetting a PC into a one-click option that works on any PC, quickly and with minimal fuss. It's the killer feature in Windows 10, as far as I am concerned.

Cortana

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When I first started using Windows 10, I assumed Cortana would just be a gimmick. Instead, it's become an indispensable part of the environment for me, combining tailored notifications with instant search in an interface that is easy to use. It's even useful for simple tasks like calculations and looking up an unfamiliar word.

Cortana is not alone in this space, of course, but of all its competitors, it offers the most control over privacy and preferences, thanks to the Notebook feature.

And if you don't like it, you don't have to use it. Cortana's off by default.

Apps

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I still cringe when I look back at the first apps for Windows 8, which were simplistic, inflexible, and mostly ignored. Much of that was thanks to the Windows Runtime (WinRT) restrictions, which turned the app sandbox into practically a prison.

The Universal Windows Platform for Windows 10 changes that, big time. Most of the built-in apps are surprisingly good. Mail, for example, has been improving massively in recent months and now works not just with Microsoft services but with Gmail's native formats as well.

I've even come to love the Music app, thanks to its very effective integration with OneDrive and a responsive design that makes iTunes look like Lotus 1-2-3.

Unfinished business

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In the "Windows as a Service" model, the one big incomplete so far is Microsoft Edge. It does a good job of rendering standards-based pages quickly, without the compatibility headaches of Internet Explorer. But the absence of support for browser extensions makes it a nonstarter for power users. No password managers? No ad blockers? None of the little timesavers that have made Chrome so popular? I'll pass for now, thanks.

The other big M.I.A. feature is in OneDrive, which still hasn't delivered on the promised replacement for the placeholders feature that was unceremoniously yanked out in late 2014. At least the new unified sync client for OneDrive and OneDrive for Business is finally here.

And the unified Skype messaging app is also taking its own sweet time arriving, as several readers reminded me via Twitter.

Coming tomorrow: The state of the Windows 10 PC.

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