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Two Windows 10 feature updates a year is too many

Opinion: The idea of delivering two full Windows 10 upgrades every year sounds great on paper. In practice, the Windows 10 upgrade cycle has been unnecessarily disruptive, especially to home users who don't have the technical skills to deal with those updates.

Microsoft's twice-annual timetable for Windows 10 feature updates is extraordinarily ambitious. By historical standards, in fact, it's downright audacious. Beginning in early 2017, the company committed to delivering two full feature updates to Windows 10 each year, one in the spring and one in the fall.

Is that development and release cadence, with a full Windows upgrade every six months, too fast? More importantly, is it reasonable to demand that Windows customers keep up with that breakneck pace?

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After watching Windows 10 in the real world for more than three years, I am convinced that the current incarnation of "Windows as a service" is unsustainable and needs to change.

I have been pleasantly surprised at the overall quality of each semi-annual release. Most of the inevitable issues that arise with each update have been resolved within the first two months, which is amazing by historical standards and a tribute to the engineering processes Microsoft has put in place for Windows 10 development.

Mandatory monthly updates can be annoying, but because they're strictly compatibility and reliability fixes, it's easy to make the case for installing them. They install relatively quickly, and security updates are unlikely to mess up a stable Windows PC.

Feature updates are a different story. Because they are full Windows upgrades, they take much longer to install, especially on well-worn budget PCs. More importantly, each such update introduces a new set of possible compatibility and reliability problems.

For the people trying to get work done with a Windows 10 PC, each new feature update is an unwelcome disruption. If you're spending two, three, or four months a year dealing with teething problems for a new OS release, you're probably not a satisfied customer.

Ironically, the PC-owning population running Windows 10 Home is on the front line for each new release and is most likely to encounter problems that have to be ironed out with a cumulative update or two. This group is probably least equipped to troubleshoot technical problems and least likely to have professional IT help at hand. And yet, because the management tools to defer updates are available only on Windows 10 Pro and Enterprise editions, they have no choice but to install each update as it arrives.

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Among IT pros, the endless update cycle takes those headaches and multiplies them by the number of seats in the organization. For at least the past year, I've been hearing loud protests from the IT pro community and other Windows support professionals over the number, the pace, and especially the quality of Windows updates. (See, for example, Susan Bradley's open letter to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, from earlier this summer, complaining about the "uptick in botched updates" from the company.)

That argument was bolstered tremendously over the past weekend, after the company made the unprecedented decision to halt the rollout of the Windows 10 October 2018 Update and pull the installation files from its servers, just days after its public release.

That's an extremely unwelcome first for Microsoft, and it raises the question of whether the company is moving too fast and breaking too many things in the process.

The twice-a-year update schedule for Windows 10 is certainly faster than any of Microsoft's competitors in the operating system arena. For mainstream OSes, everyone else has pretty much standardized on annual releases.

In 2012, Apple switched from an every-other-year schedule to its current annual release cycle for OS X (now MacOS). For six straight years, Mac users have received a new MacOS version in September or October.

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Among mobile operating systems, both iOS and Android have been on an annual release cycle since 2011. Apple drops new iOS updates like clockwork every mid-September; Android's schedule is slightly more fluid, but the most recent three releases have been in August and it's reasonable to expect that going forward.

Among minor players on PC hardware, Ubuntu Linux offers a release cycle that's superficially similar to that of Windows 10, with two releases per year, in the spring and fall. Crucially, most of those are interim releases (shown in gray in the timeline below) and are supported only until the next interim release comes out. The long-term support versions (shown in orange in the support timeline) are released every two years.

ubuntu-support-timeline.jpg

Canonical releases new Ubuntu versions twice a year, just like Windows 10, but Long Term Support releases are good for several years.

via Canonical

Microsoft is making a tentative move in that direction with a recently announced change in support lifecycles:

For future releases, Microsoft is moving to separate support lifecycles for its twice-yearly releases. The March updates will have an 18-month support cycle for all editions, whereas the September release will get the longer, 30-month support cycle for Enterprise and Education editions. (All Windows 10 Pro installations will be supported for 18 months, and Windows 10 Home has no ability to defer updates.)

That's a good start, but it still requires a disproportionate amount of management attention to avoid accidentally installing one of the semi-annual updates. And for anyone running Windows 10 Home, there are no options whatsoever for managing updates. Every six months, give or take a month, like it or not, you'll be forced to install an update

One easy fix I can think of is to make the April feature updates optional on all Windows 10 editions. Offer the April update to every device that's eligible (except those that have updates deferred via management tools), but give a simple binary choice: Yes, install the update now; or No, I'll hold off until October. A Pro license should give you the option to skip one October update.

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That simple change would effectively turn the Windows 10 April updates into interim releases, suitable for public use but not mandatory, while transitioning Windows to a more mainstream annual schedule built around October releases.

One hallmark of the Windows-as-a-service experiment is that it allows Microsoft to quickly incorporate feedback from its customers into the product. It's time to listen to this feedback and slow the upgrade cycle to a more reasonable pace.