Microsoft, stop feeding bugs to a billion Windows 10 users. Here's how

One release channel isn't enough. Microsoft just rearranged the Windows Insider Program, but the company missed an opportunity to help mainstream customers who are unwittingly signing up as beta testers with each new release.

Windows 10 after five years: Nothing turned out as expected, and that’s OK

With mild fanfare, Microsoft this month announced it was making a few changes to the Windows Insider Program. At first glance, these appear to be minor tweaks, renaming the options that are available for customers who sign up to install and provide feedback on Windows 10 before its general release.

The Dev Channel replaces the old Fast Ring, Beta Channel is the new name for Slow Ring, and the Release Preview Ring becomes the Release Preview Channel. (In a blog post introducing the changes, Windows Insider Program manager Amanda Langowski says "The transition to channels will start showing up on the Windows Insider Program's Settings page in builds later this month.")

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The effect of those name changes for participants in the Windows Insider Program should be roughly nil. And it misses the real problem, which is that ordinary Windows customers are being pressed into service as unwitting beta testers at the beginning of each release.

In the current naming convention, the three Windows Insider rings are part of a discrete phase of pre-release testing; when that phase ends, the new Windows 10 version goes to the general public as a feature update, in the Semi-Annual Channel.

In the new scheme of things, there's no longer a border crossing to mark the hand-off to public release. Instead, it's just a transition to the next channel, part of a continuous stage of development.

As each version moves from one channel to the next, Dev Channel to Beta to Release Preview to Semi-Annual Channel, the pool of devices running that code gets larger, which leads to an inevitable result: As each new channel opens up, new bugs and incompatibilities surface.

That's not such a big deal in the Insider channels, where the participants are (mostly) aware of what they signed up for. Where things get sticky is when that feature update is offered to the general public, as it is here.

feature-update-2004-available.png

Microsoft is currently working through a long list of issues with this Windows 10 version, but you wouldn't know that from this prompt/

Microsoft is no longer automatically installing those feature updates but is instead making them available as optional updates, as shown above. IT pros who are managing deployments of that new feature update know how to test a new public release in pilot groups before rolling it out widely. They also know to check Microsoft's Windows 10 release health dashboard for an updated list of known issues associated with that update.

But Windows users who have to manage their own devices without the help of an IT department have been trained over years to check Windows Update and install everything they see there. For them, those bugs can be an unwelcome surprise.

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Many of those bugs are related to oddball configurations or third-party drivers that never made it into the test pool during those months of Insider preview builds. Experience over the last couple of years shows a consistent pattern: A flurry of issues emerge; most of those issues are resolved within a few weeks; the count of open known issues goes down as software fixes roll out and the bug's status gets changed from Investigating to Resolved or Mitigated.

As I write this article, less than a month after the release of Windows 10 version 2004, Microsoft has published details of 13 known issues on the release health dashboard for that version. Two have been marked Resolved and two have been labeled as Mitigated, but the remaining nine are still open.  

The logical conclusion is that anyone who would rather not deal with those teething issues should wait two or three or maybe even four months after the initial release of a feature update before installing it. And even then, only do so after confirming that the first wave of known issues has been resolved. Instead, Microsoft is offering that update widely today.

This cadence leads to a depressingly predictable category of stories for tech bloggers, for whom each new "known issue" is like so much digital catnip. "Microsoft updates list of known issues for latest Windows 10 release" is a tedious, even boring headline. "Microsoft Just Gave A Billion Users A Reason To Quit Windows 10" is the sort of stuff that keeps Gordon Kelly of Forbes in business.

In fact, rejiggering the channels in the Windows Insider Program doesn't address the real problem. What the company ought to do is take a second look at the channel they're using to deliver official releases to the general public. They don't even need to reinvent anything here, because for the first few years of its existence, Microsoft had it figured out.

Five years ago, when Windows 10 debuted, Microsoft had not one but two official releases for each version. These weren't called rings or channels but were instead "branches": Current Branch and the Current Branch for Business.

The idea was simple: Each new Windows 10 version would go out to the public (the Current Branch), but Microsoft would throttle its release and use its telemetry capabilities to monitor for issues. Meanwhile, businesses would hold off until Microsoft declared that the release was stable enough for them to begin deploying. The Current Branch for Business designation was Microsoft's formal "all clear" for its business customers; this signal usually came after three or four months of cumulative updates.

In 2017, after Microsoft had formally committed to its twice-yearly release schedule, the company decided to rename those branches. (These people really spend way too much time renaming and reorganizing stuff, but I digress.)

As my colleague Mary Jo Foley reported in May 2017, part of the stated reason was to "align the patching and updating strategies for Windows 10 and Office moving forward."

What Microsoft currently calls the "Current Branch" in Windows 10 updating parlance will be changing to "Semi-Annual Channel (Pilot)." And the Current Branch for Business release, which typically follows the Current Branch by four months and is anointed by Microsoft as being ready for business deployment, will be known as "Semi Annual Channel (Broad)" at some point in the coming months.

For some reason, those names didn't stick. Instead, the branches became the Semi-Annual Channel (Targeted) and the Semi-Annual Channel. Those names were amazingly inappropriate as a way of clearly describing the purpose of the channels, which may have been the point. (At least they didn't go with First Release for Deferred Channel and Deferred Channel, the names the Office ProPlus product line used for a while.)

That system lasted for less than two years, when Microsoft decided to consolidate the two channels into a single Semi-Annual Channel. Business customers can still accomplish the same goal, using Group Policy and Windows Update for Business, but they can't count on Microsoft to issue a formal acknowledgment that the coast is clear. 

Regardless of what you call them, the notion of having two release channels recognizes a fundamental reality of how Windows updates work on an installed base of more than a billion devices. The first few months after a new release inevitably involve some instability, and cautious customers might want to wait a few months if they'd rather not deal with those headaches.

Those distinctions aren't just relevant to business customers, either. They should apply to Microsoft's consumer customers as well. That's especially true in these times, where seniors and other vulnerable populations depend on computing devices to maintain a connection to the outside world or to work remotely. If you give Insider testers the option to choose their release channel based on software quality, why not give mainstream customers the same choice?

I'd love to see Microsoft bring back the concept of two release channels, but this time do it right. Bring them back as Release Channel (Fast) and Release Channel (Stable). Add some settings to Windows Update so every customer can choose the Stable release and not be offered that early version with its greater likelihood of hitting bugs.

This doesn't have to replace Microsoft's AI-driven delivery plan, which tries to predict which devices are most likely to have a positive upgrade experience and prioritizes them to receive updates earlier than other machines. It just allows the customer to add their preference to the algorithm.