Windows 10 after two years: Was the upgrade worth it?
That strategy turned out to be counterproductive, with some customers howling in pain over forced upgrades that caused compatibility problems. The blowback from a German consumer agency was serious enough that Microsoft issued a rare formal apology and promised never to do it again.
To add insult to injury, that aggressive approach still left the Windows 10 installed base short of its ambitious goal of 1 billion devices.
For the big Windows 10 feature update that arrived in mid-2016, Microsoft adopted the same aggressive approach, and the result was once again far from problem-free. The initial rollout of the Anniversary Update caused some PCs to freeze after completing the upgrade, resulted in reboot loops for others, and broke an important enterprise feature.
Those negative experiences apparently led to some soul-searching and some much-needed process changes in Redmond.
As Windows 10 enters its third year, Microsoft is taking a far more deliberate approach to delivering feature updates.
Exhibit A is Windows 10 version 1703, the so-called Creators Update. Although it was officially released in April, Microsoft has been rolling it out in much more measured fashion. On two test devices in my office, for example, I wasn't offered the Windows 10 Creators Update until early September.
That's no accident. The new goal for Windows 10 feature updates, according to people involved directly with the Windows Update infrastructure, is to roll them out "as fast as is safe."
Windows Update for Business: A hands-on look at how to take control [Tech Pro Research]
The end result is that Microsoft is being far more selective about the rollout process for the Creators Update and its successor, the Fall Creators Update.
John Cable, Director of Program Management for Windows Servicing and Delivery, told me the goal for both of 2017's feature updates is to use Microsoft's telemetry information and an expanded regimen of testing with OEMs to sort PCs into groups based on their likelihood to upgrade properly.
"We won't roll out [a feature update] until we are certain you will have a positive experience," Cable told me.
Problems arise because the universe of Windows PCs is so diverse that it's literally impossible to test every combination of hardware and software to identify issues.
Using telemetry data, Cable said, "We can tell which apps, hardware drivers, and firmware will cause certain issues." Armed with that knowledge, Microsoft can prevent an update from going to certain machines until that issue is resolved.
The listening process also includes problem reports from other channels, including Twitter, Reddit, and Microsoft's own Feedback Hub app, which is included with every copy of Windows 10.
Anecdotally, I can confirm that I've heard far fewer complaints about Windows 10 issues this year than I did following the initial rollout and the Anniversary Update. And Microsoft says that its new, more measured approach to updates is paying off in performance and reliability improvements.
Through "operating system efficiencies," Microsoft claims to have improved battery life in the Creators Update, with a 2.5 percent increase in online video streaming and extending playback of offline video files by 5 percent.
On performance metrics that directly affect perceived user experience, Microsoft claims to have made improvements in version 1703. Booting up a device is now 13 percent faster, according to the company's measurements, and logging in after boot is up to 18 percent faster. The Windows Hello facial recognition feature is up to 30 percent faster.
The company also claims a 17 percent improvement in battery life with the built-in Windows 10 browser, Microsoft Edge. Performance improvements, too: "Microsoft Edge is also up to 53 percent faster in the Creators Update thanks to efficiency improvements that make scrolling pages and loading pages faster, and website rendering and interaction more responsive."
In terms of reliability, Microsoft says working more closely with hardware manufacturers to test drivers has paid off, with PCs running the Creators Update seeing a 39 percent total reduction in operating system and driver stability issues compared to the Anniversary Update.
The most direct measure of improved reliability is in support requests, with the ratio of customer support requests (phone and online) dropping steadily over the past year, even as the Windows 10 installed base rose by approximately 150 million.
In releasing its Windows 10 reliability data now, Microsoft has a twofold goal.
First, it's trying to convince skeptical enterprise managers that Windows 10 is ready for business. Windows 7 is still running on the vast majority of business PCs, even as its end-of-support deadline of January 2020 looms.
Second, Microsoft is determined to prove that its unprecedented collection of telemetry data is paying off in terms of reliability and performance improvement. Earlier this year, the company published a detailed list of what types of information are included in its diagnostic reports. It also scaled back the volume of data collected and improved procedures for obtaining user consent.
Even with the new, gentler upgrade cycle, Windows 10 users can still expect some unwelcome surprises. Just this week, for example, Microsoft released a support note documenting a bug in some OEM factory images that causes some PCs to display a black screen for 5-10 minutes after every reboot.