Microsoft officials have been trickling out information about how the company intends to add new features to Windows outside of annual feature updates. On February 3, Microsoft officials provided a bit more information.
Microsoft officials said a couple of weeks ago that they planned to release several new features in February to Windows 11 users -- well ahead of the Windows 11 22H2 feature update expected around October this year. Officials said mainstream Windows 11 users (not Insider testers) will get a public preview of Android apps on Windows 11, taskbar improvements with call mute and unmute, easier window sharing, and the weather icon on the taskbar. Plus, users will get the redesigned Notepad and Media Player apps in February.
Officials declined to explain exactly when or how they planned to do this.
However, in a blog post about the future of the Windows Insider program published on February 3, there's a line that says:
"We will deliver updates to features and experiences in builds from the Dev and Beta Channels by releasing Feature, Web, and Online Service Experience Packs on top of these builds too."
Microsoft officials already announced that Windows 11 (and Windows 10) will be getting only one feature update per year going forward. They had been hinting that Windows 11 users would likely get other OS updates in addition to this feature update, but they had provided no specifics at all until the past couple of weeks.
Microsoft officials had said that new features could come either as full OS updates (feature releases) or Cumulative Updates (servicing releases). But now Microsoft is going a step further and acknowledging that it is planning to use three additional channels to get Windows 11 updates out to mainstream users:
Acknowledged officially by Microsoft in November 2020 (though already shipping to Windows 10 users months before that), the Feature Experience Packs are a vehicle for delivering new feature improvements to customers outside of major Windows feature updates. The Feature Experience Pack originally included the updated Snipping tool; an updated text input panel; and an updated shell-suggestion user interface.
Online Service Experience Packs are yet another vehicle for updating Windows features independently of the OS itself. An October 2021 Microsoft blog post explained:
"These Online Service Experience Packs work in a similar way as the Windows Feature Experience Packs do, allowing us to make updates to Windows outside of major OS updates. The difference between the two is that the Windows Feature Experience Packs can deliver broad improvements across multiple areas of Windows, whereas the Online Service Experience Packs are focused on delivering improvements for a specific experience, such as the new Your Microsoft account settings page."
There's no link in Microsoft's blog post to this because, as far as I can tell, officials have not talked about what these are. When I asked earlier today about it, a spokesperson said: "The Web Experience Pack is updated through the Microsoft Store (while the Feature Experience Packs and Online Service Packs will be updated through Windows Update). The Web Experience Pack will allow Microsoft to update things like the Widgets experience in Windows 11."
The rest of Microsoft's blog post about the future for Insiders is largely a recap. Microsoft will continue to have three external test rings: Dev Channel, Beta Channel, and Release Preview Channel. As officials said last year, the Dev Channel no longer corresponds to any particular planned Windows release; instead the Dev Channel is all about experimenting with new features that may or may not one day make it into a particular Windows release. The Beta and Release Preview channels are testing sets of features that are likely to correspond to updates that will hit the mainstream in the relatively near future.
Microsoft is advising those testing Windows 11 to think about which ring is best for them and plans to open the "window" soon, during which Dev Channels can move to Beta if they don't want to be experimenting with features which may never be part of the product.