Piecing together the Windows as a Service puzzle for Windows 10

There's a piece of the Windows 10 story that may be more important to business users than the actual editions themselves: The branches that underlie Windows as a Service.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

While we Microsoft watchers, partners and customers continue to try to make sense of the multiple new editions of Windows 10 -- and the likely upgrade paths to them -- there's a piece of the puzzle that's more important than the versions themselves.

That piece is the Windows as a Service story, anchored by three different "servicing branches." Which versions of Windows 10 include support for servicing branches is going to be a crucial piece of information for business users, especially, when considering the move to Windows 10.

Microsoft officials have gone public with bits of the servicing-branch story over the past several months. But some of the company's reseller partners are seemingly privy to more of the story and are starting to talk, too. Here's what I'm hearing and starting to piece together, at this point.

There are going to be three Windows 10 servicing branches when the product launches: Current Branch (CB), Current Branch for Business (CBB) and Long Term Servicing Branch (LTSB). Different versions of Windows 10 will give users access to different servicing branches.

Those running Windows 10 Home will have just one choice -- the Current Branch. That means those users will have to take any new features, fixes and security updates that Microsoft pushes to them via Windows Update. (They will be pushed after Windows Insiders and Microsoft itself tests them.) Windows 10 Home users won't have the option of delaying or deferring anything. And for many consumers, that will be OK, if not welcome.

Those running Windows 10 Pro are going to have two options: Current Branch or Current Branch for Business. The CB means, as with Home, that users will have to take all feature fixes and security updates as they're made available by Microsoft via Windows Update. But the CBB option will give Pro users more flexibility about when they apply the new features, fixes and security updates from Microsoft.

First off, those who have access to the CBB will have a choice of how they get these updates. They'll be able to use Windows Update, Windows Update for Business or Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) to push these updates to users. Windows Update for Business, as a reminder, is Microsoft's new free servicing plan that allows admins to have more control over how and when they deliver fixes, security updates and new features to their users.

I've heard from one of my contacts that Microsoft is planning to allow those with access to the CBB to defer new feature updates for Windows 10 only for a set period of time. But they cannot defer them indefinitely. To guarantee this, Microsoft is likely to allow CBB users to defer only one set of new features before requiring them to update to them in order to continue to get security fixes. In other words, those on the CBB will only get security patches for the current Windows 10 release and the "N-1," or the previous version of Windows 10 minus the latest set of feature updates.

The thinking is Microsoft will keep everyone on the CB and CBB more current if they don't allow users to delay updates and fixes for too long.

How long is "too long"? We believe Microsoft is going to be pushing out new feature updates (both smaller and larger) to users on a regular, ongoing basis. So how long will CBB users be allowed to wait to push out new feature updates Microsoft makes available to Windows 10? That, I don't know. I also don't know if CBB users will be able to delay pushing new features an indefinite number of times, or only a set number of times.

Microsoft hasn't disclosed this information publicly. I've reached out again to see if the company will talk about anything having to do with the Windows 10 branch/SKU story. No word back so far. Update: A company spokesperson said Microsoft had no comment.

Those who are on Windows 10 Enterprise -- the most expensive and most fully-featured version of Windows 10 (and one that's available only to Volume Licensees) -- get the most choice.

Enterprise customers can mix and match. They'll be able to have any or all of their users on the Current Branch with immediate updates delivered via Windows Update. They'll be able to have any or all of their users on the CBB with the option to use Windows Update for Business or WSUS to get their updates, with the aforementioned right to delay the delivery of new features for a bit. Windows 10 Enterprise users also will be the only group to have access to the Long Term Servicing Branch. This branch allows users to take only security fixes and defer taking any new features and to handle them via Windows Update for Business and/or WSUS.

Windows 10 Education -- the volume-licensable version of Windows 10 that will include all the same features as Windows 10 Enterprise, but only for students and teachers -- will get the same options as Windows 10 Pro. Windows 10 Education users will have the option of taking new features, fixes and updates immediately via Windows Update, or slightly deferring when they get new features thanks to the CBB.

I don't have any insight right now into how the servicing branches and the two Windows 10 Mobile SKUs, Windows 10 Mobile and Windows 10 Mobile Enterprise, intersect. My guess would be the plain old Mobile version will be on the Current Branch, meaning any/all features, fixes and security updates will be pushed directly to users as soon as they're ready -- and once carriers and handset makers hold them hostage test them. Enterprise Mobile users might get more breathing room.

A few takeaways:

  • The only group of customers that will have the option to refuse completely new features that Microsoft delivers as part of its Windows 10 as a service strategy are Windows 10 Enterprise users. They are the only ones who have rights to the Long Term Branch. In a strangely ironic way, the customers who pay the most for Windows 10 are the ones who have the option of running the fewest features (though they still will have to take all security updates).
  • The only customers who can continue to use WSUS to control how/when they apply new patches, features and fixes to Windows 10 are Pro, Enterprise and Education users. If you take Microsoft's "free for the first year" upgrade deal to Windows 10, you won't have the option to use WSUS or Windows for Business -- only Windows Update.
  • As I noted earlier this week, contrary to a number of recent headlines' claims, Patch Tuesday isn't dead. "Windows Update for Business can take responsibility for the timely distribution of security updates for customers for free. Customers that choose to distribute updates themselves will continue to receive the updates on the 2nd Tuesday of the month," said a Microsoft spokesperson. Obviously that means if you're using a version of Windows 10 that doesn't offer Windows Update for Business as an option, a k a Windows 10 Home, you won't be dealing with Patch Tuesday anymore.

For those who thought Microsoft was going to use Windows 10 as a "loss leader" by giving it away for free to most anyone, those thoughts should be gone now. The reason for all this SKU and servicing complexity is Microsoft still has plans to make money with Windows 10, even if a number of customers end up taking the first-year "free upgrade to Windows 10" deal.

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