Over the past four years, Microsoft has tinkered with its Windows 10 update mechanism, offering minor tweaks that were ultimately unsatisfying. The biggest complaints centered around unexpected restarts, especially those associated with the twice-annual feature updates that are at the core of the "Windows as a service" model.
The problems came to a head last October, when a series of embarrassing bugs forced Microsoft to pull its October 2018 Update just days after its release. It took another six weeks before the company announced that the issues had been fully investigated and resolved and the update was ready to resume its rollout.
At the time, Windows managers promised sweeping changes in the way it approaches quality issues. This week the company announced details of how those changes would be implemented, and the results are far more substantial than outside observers expected.
My colleague Mary Jo Foley has details of the changes in her post "Microsoft is making big Windows 10 update changes starting with the May 2019 release."
The biggest winners are customers in unmanaged environments, especially consumers and small businesses using Windows 10 Home Edition. Beginning with this update, they'll finally have two options that were previously unavailable.
First, they'll be able to pause all updates for up to 35 days, even after those updates have been downloaded. As in previous releases, Home edition won't include the deferral options that are available on business editions, but the addition of the Pause button will make it possible to reschedule updates for a time that's more convenient.
Second, customers using unmanaged Windows 10 PCs will no longer be force-fed feature updates. Instead of delivering those large semi-annual updates alongside the monthly security updates, Microsoft is breaking the updates out into a separate category, as shown here.
In previous releases, manually checking for updates ran the risk of inadvertently kicking off a feature update that could take an hour or more. With this new design, Windows will notify users that a feature update is available, but you'll have to use that separate link on the Windows Update page to download and install it.
And you won't need to install a Windows update to access this new feature. According to Microsoft, the new "download and install" option for feature updates will be implemented on the server side. It will be available for Windows 10 versions 1803 and 1809 "by late May," when the new update begins its rollout.
In theory, at least, these changes make it possible for a device running any edition of Windows 10, including Home edition, to skip feature updates for the supported life of the current release. For non-Enterprise editions, that's a full 18 months.
These new features should eliminate the need for home users to engage in risky, unsupported solutions for deferring updates, such as configuring network connections to behave as if they're metered or using dodgy third-party software to shut down the Windows Update service.
Of course, the whole point of deferring updates is to avoid quality issues. In an ideal world, those issues will be rare, with minimal impact on system reliability, and will be fixed quickly. For skeptics who'd prefer to wait and watch as other users play guinea pig, Microsoft is rolling out a new "release health dashboard" that will reportedly offer "near real-time information on the current rollout status and known issues (open and resolved) across both feature and monthly updates."
As part of its drive to minimize the risk of another round of quality problems like those that it suffered in October 2018, the company says it's increasing its use of machine learning capabilities to identify "high-severity, low-volume issues" like the data-destroying Known Folder Redirection bug. It's also introducing new tests to address the root causes of issues that previously slipped through.
And that same focus also means that Windows Insider testing will extend for roughly a month longer than before, with the final build of version 1903 going to the Release Preview ring for a month before it goes to the general public.
Will these changes be enough to convince Windows 10 users who were burned by previous, buggy releases? Only time will tell. But at least now the skeptics have new tools to step out of the line of fire.