Windows 10: Microsoft's last big splash OS, but will a drip, drip of updates suit firms better?

Businesses are weighing up the possibility that Windows 10 really might be Microsoft's final major Windows release and the implications of rapid OS updates taking the place of big bang upgrades.
Written by Toby Wolpe, Contributor

If it's true and Windows 10 really does prove to be the last major release of Microsoft's operating system, it'll be hard to find anyone in IT to mourn the passing of the massive desktop migration.

But what looks set to replace the big Windows launches that have punctuated so much of the PC era is a system of more frequent updates, which will include new features as well as patches.

It's an approach already applied in varying degrees elsewhere — for example, by Apple and by Canonical with Ubuntu LTS. Yet the scale and complexity of Microsoft's installed base could raise specific enterprise challenges for any new update system and the companies trying to use it.

Also, confidence in Microsoft has been hit by hiccups such as August's recalled updates and the bigger setback of Windows 8's failure to capture the imagination of business or consumers.

Figures out this week from NetMarketShare put the combined Windows 8 and 8.1 desktop share worldwide at 12.3 percent, compared with Windows 7 on 52.7 percent and even out-of-support Windows XP's 23.9 percent.

"Microsoft has got some work to rebuild trust around its operating system at the moment, in terms of its usability. So there will be questions ongoing," TechMarketView research director Angela Eager said.

"It's a very topical approach. This kind of non-destructive upgrade is something that vendors from SAP through to Sage are moving towards, small upgrades to reflect the online, the SaaS environment. That's got a lot of appeal.

"But some of this is about having the right attitude and the right face to deliver on that non-disruptive promise as well. It's more fundamental than Patch Tuesday."

That promise will certainly be welcomed by companies, according to Quocirca service director Clive Longbottom. But they will also be wary about Microsoft's ability to carry through that potential change of approach successfully.

"It does put a lot of weight onto Microsoft, in that they've got to get their updates sorted out," Longbottom said.

"They've got to have good granularity in the operating system itself, have far less need for reboots after all the updates — something they were talking about many years ago, that they were meant to have cut the number of reboots required by 60 percent. I've never noticed it."

However, smaller but more frequent OS upgrades would enable many IT departments to maintain a more up-to-date environment, which keeps pace with consumer technology for the first time, and to apply for funding more easily.

"It is something that Microsoft has spoken about it since Windows 95, when they were saying they were going to start bringing all the different types of Windows together and have a single core," Longbottom said.

"This is one where Microsoft, provided it gets its messaging right, provided it has the proof of the pudding, can get people to move over, saying, 'From now on you will be on the latest base anyway. There's no point in staying where you are'.

"So as far as I'm concerned, the jury is still out. I'll believe it when I see it but if they do get it right, then great. More power to their elbow."

Ovum principal analyst Roy Illsley said the Apple approach of software updates would hold a lot of appeal for Microsoft's business customers.

"If you're an enterprise, that's definitely what you want — something that's stable, that does not cause you a drama every four or five years when you have to go through a major upgrade of your desktop estate, and you want your applications to work seamlessly with it," Illsley said.

The concept is sound but the challenge is applying it effectively in an enterprise setting.

"As somebody who upgraded to iOS 8 when it first came out and then discovered I couldn't post pictures onto Facebook, I then had to upgrade to iOS 8.2 when the patch came out a few days later," he said.

"That's fine for a home user. But if you're an enterprise and that happens with a Microsoft release, then the challenge you're going to have is how fast is Microsoft going to put the patches out.

"So I agree with the principle that it's a way that enterprises want to move, but the key thing is going to be can Microsoft deliver the reliability and the performance that go with not doing a big release but general small releases."

If Microsoft does adopt the rapid upgrade approach, it will also have implications for internal processes, procedures and testing.

"Processes change but if people accept that it works, and the applications all work with it, great. But that's the concern. Will all the apps be in line with the upgrade and will they all work and will it stop the business if it doesn't? That's the critical factor."

"Initially it's going to be a learning curve for both sides. Business is probably going to have to treat it in the same old way, in that they don't trust it until they know applications can keep up to date with it, or the applications are wrapped in a wrapper in a virtualisation way and they'll work with it anyway," he said.

Another key issue is how easy it will be to apply changes to the operating system without disruption.

"If it's like the old Microsoft upgrades of the past, you can't just press a button and it applies the new changes. But if it's a big, big change then it's not going to be any different for CIOs and IT departments. It's going to be exactly the same but just called a different thing," Illsley said.

The idea of a series of smaller, less disruptive upgrades is appealing but CIOs may be wondering about the viability of the concept in the longer term.

"What happens when you get to a big inflection point? The small upgrades are great now we're on touchscreens and all this fancy stuff but at some point they may have to rearchitect the operating system to take advantage of the next big thing," Illsley said.

"That will be at the back of some CIOs' minds. They're going to be thinking, 'That's great. I can buy the hardware and if it becomes slow, I can upgrade and it's not an issue because it's continual upgrades and everything will work. But if something new comes out and doesn't work with it, we're back into the old situation'."

Another nagging concern could be the frequency of the changes and the implications and uncertainties of opting out of the update cycle.

"If you talk to most CIOs, they never take the latest operating system from Microsoft anyway. You never go for the first instantiation. You always wait for service pack one because when it comes out from Microsoft first of all, whether it's good or bad, it's still got a load of bugs," Illsley said.

"The big question will be what's new in the release that's driving the update and what are the implications if I don't upgrade. Will you be forced to be on the latest releases otherwise you don't get support?

"Are they planning on supporting all the way back or are they going to have a cutoff and where's that cutoff and how frequent are these changes? These are all issues that have to come out."

Illsley said businesses do not want high-frequency changes that disrupt work yet turn out to be trivial or cosmetic.

"When you're doing something, you don't want to have an update to do because there's a cool new feature that turns a button blue instead of pink. I can quite happily live without that fantastic change, thank you very much, Microsoft," he said.

"Can you opt out? How long can you opt out for? Does it pick up all the changes, bundle them all together? Also, how does it deal with the drivers, the add-ons, and the peripherals that you've got? Desktops have a host of apps on them but they've also got a host of peripherals connected to them. Are they all going to work?"

Beyond the technology issues, a change in approach by Microsoft, however beneficial, will have organisational implications, according to TechMarketView's Angela Eager.

"When it comes to enterprises, it's not just the technical aspects that are an issue when upgrading. It's also the training and the amount of change in the training that's needed for individuals to maintain productivity," she said.

"It really is the effect of the SaaS environment playing through and driving change in the traditional on-premise software world — that expectation of rapid updates, easy to push through from a vendor and an enterprise perspective."

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