Microsoft delivers first Windows 10 Fast Ring build from its new development branch

Microsoft has new Insider testing guidelines for Windows 10 builds, plus a new Fast Ring build, No. 19536, the first of its test builds from its new development branch.

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Microsoft is preparing to move forward with its testing of its next Windows 10 feature update. And, in a number of key ways, it won't be following the playbook it established in previous years with its Insider program.

On December 16, Microsoft also released what officials said would be the last test flight of calendar 2019. Build 19536 is the first Fast Ring test build from its active development branch. Microsoft is not saying if this new build will become Windows 10 20H2 or Windows 10 21H1. In fact, officials said the code it's releasing today actually might not end up in either of those updates.

From today's blog post: "Internally, our engineers work in development cycles with various milestones. The active development branch (called 'RS_PRERELEASE') is where the teams check in all their latest code changes into the OS. Moving forward, the Fast ring will receive builds directly from this active development branch and new features will show up in these builds first," said Brandon LeBlanc, Senior Program Manager with the Insider Program.

"While features in the active development branch may be slated for a future Windows 10 release, they are no longer matched to a specific Windows 10 release. This means that builds from the active development branch simply reflect the latest work in progress code from our engineers. New features and OS improvements done in this branch during these development cycles will show up in future Windows 10 releases when they are ready. And we may deliver these new features and OS improvements as full OS build updates or servicing releases.," LeBlanc added.

Microsoft is close to finalizing -- if it hasn't finalized already -- Windows 10 20H1, its feature update that will be released in the spring of 2020. Normally, Microsoft would either begin testing Windows 10 20H2 or jump ahead and start testing Windows 10 21H1 with the Fast Ring.

But there have been clues over the past few months that Microsoft's Windows engineering team is trying to break away from past patterns where test builds are tied to specific Windows 10 feature updates. The Windows engineering team is using the same "semester" schedule for building Windows as Azure has been using. But there isn't necessarily a direct correlation between features developed in a given semester and the particular Windows 10 feature update where they are released.

Codenames of these semesters correspond to the periodic table of elements. The 20H1 release is codenamed "Vibranium" (a placeholder because "Chromium" would have been even more confusing). The 20H2 release semester is codenamed "Manganese." These codenames no longer correspond to the Windows feature updates, however; they are more aligned to the development "semesters." That means Windows features completed during any given "semester" can show up in different code releases. Features can be backported from a given semester to various Windows 10 feature updates.

I'm hearing from my contacts that Microsoft actually has decided already to adhere to the same major/minor release schedule in 2020 that it has used in 2019. That means Windows 10 20H1 is considered a "major" Windows 10 feature update, but 20H2 will be a very minor one that will look and act like a Cumulative Update when it is released in the fall of 2020. Microsoft's blog post today asserts that the company may or may not pursue this path.

Earlier this month, Microsoft officials told Windows Insiders during a webcast that the company's decision to have Skip Ahead and Fast Ring testers start kicking the tires of 20H1 months ahead of its release was just a "pilot program." The decision to make Windows 10 19H2 a cumulative update for those already running Windows 10 19H1 (also known as Windows 10 1903) was a test, they said. They said there was no "formal plan to deliver future releases in the same way."

"We are closely monitoring feedback and hoping to learn from this type of release to help influence future plans," officials said.

Back to Build 19536. Like most brand-new test builds, this one includes very few actual features and mostly fixes. Microsoft's blog post says that the team is still working on making it easier for users to see all optional updates (drivers, feature updats and monthly non-security updates) ina single place, obviating the need to browse Device Manager for a specific device to update.

Today's build also adds a new setting when setting up a device called "People in my family" for setting up a family group. Only some Insiders who choose to reset their PCs may see the screen with the new family option.

There is a boatload of changes and fixes that are part of today's Windows 10 Fast Ring test build. They are listed in the blog post, along with the current list of Known Issues.

Today's Insider blog post also notes that Microsoft now allows Your Phone app users to access their most recent 2,000 photos from their Android camera rolls on their PCs, instead of just 25. This expanded Photos feature is available for any Android phonese running version 7.0 or higher, and any PC running Windows 10 April 2018 Update or higher. It will be rolling out gradually to users who qualify.

The Phone screen in Your Phone also includes support for digital pens. And the new Calls feature -- which allows users to answer phone calls from their PCs via the Your Phone app, is now available to everyone and rolling out.