Windows 10 after four years: A solid report card, but serious challenges ahead

Four years after its launch, Windows 10 has gone from being a curiosity to owning a solid majority of the Windows desktop market. But Microsoft still has a tough challenge on its hands convincing Windows 7 holdouts to migrate.

Here's how Microsoft can fix its Windows 10 update issues ZDNet's Ed Bott and Mary Jo Foley make some proposals that could help Microsoft solve for its Windows 10 version 1809 issues in the future. We should have charged Microsoft a consulting day rate.

Windows 10 is now four years old. If during that time we have learned anything from the original release of Windows 10 and its six (soon to be seven) subsequent feature updates, that lesson is simple, short, and sweet: Embrace change.

Previous "big bang" releases meant exactly the opposite of change for Microsoft's OEM partners and for its corporate customers running Windows. Once you deployed a Windows version, you could hang on to it for up to 10 years without having to worry about changes in its underlying architecture or its user experience.

With Windows 10, that advice is no longer operative. In the new era, Microsoft trickles out new features for its flagship desktop operating system every six months. Until recently, in fact, most Windows 10 devices automatically downloaded and installed those semi-annual feature updates, resulting in much wailing and gnashing of teeth among those forced to wait (and wait and wait, sometimes) for the update to complete.

Earlier installments in this series:

As of the most recent release, the May 2019 Update, those feature updates are now optional, with users having the option to skip an update or two. The respite ends when the currently installed version is no longer supported, which means procrastinators have up to 18 months to avoid these big feature updates.

That decision is part of a major change in Microsoft's release calendar and support lifecycle that was in turn a response to the embarrassing rollout of version 1809. Besides the ability for users to skip feature updates, the changes include additional layers of testing from the Windows Insider Program and a 30-month enterprise support calendar for the H2 releases. The latter change in policy effectively turns the upcoming version 1909 release into a Long Term Support version.

What's worth noting here is that, update snafus aside, Windows 10 is a very good operating system. The design language is consistent and attractive and has evolved nicely with the platform. As I noted four years ago in my review of the initial release of Windows 10, I can't think of a Windows desktop program that doesn't run well on Windows 10. It works very well with a mouse and keyboard or with a touchscreen and pen. The steady transition from the old Control Panel to the new, modern Settings app has been impressive, especially if you factor in the graphic changes that come with Fluent Design.

Part of what makes this evolution possible is the aforementioned Windows Insider Program, which allows Microsoft's customers to provide real-time feedback during the development process. That feedback has not only made some new features better, it has stopped Microsoft from releasing new features that might have been confusing or poorly received.

I issued report cards for Windows 10 after each of its first three years. As we pass the four-year mark, it's time to do it again. My 2019 report card uses the same categories as last year.

Adoption rate: C-

As of May 2019, Microsoft's official count of Windows 10 active devices (those which have connected to Microsoft's servers at least once in the past 28 days) had passed 800 million, up from about 400 million in September 2016 and 600 million in November 2017. Many of those are new PCs purchased as replacements for older devices; the other large chunk of new activations are PCs that have been upgraded in corporate installations.

Unless there's a sudden surge in the number of corporate upgrades and replacements, the worldwide installed base of Windows 10 will fall well shy of the 1 billion mark on January 14, 2020, when Windows 7 reaches its official end of support.

The most recent usage data from the US Government's Data Analytics Program offers a good measure of how the overall migration to Windows 10 has been going so far. As of July 31, 2019, Windows 7 accounted for more than 1 in every 4 visits to U.S. government websites from Windows PCs.

Windows 10 usage, 2015-2019

Windows 10 adoption rates need to accelerate if Microsoft is to wean its user base from Windows 7 before support ends in January 2020.

Source: U.S. Data Analytics Program

Windows 10 will probably crack the 80% mark by the time Windows 7 officially exits support, but that means several hundred million PCs will still be running older Windows versions past that date. Some of those machines will be installed in enterprises that will grudgingly pay for extended support. But another very large number will simply stop receiving updates, making it uncomfortably likely that next year will see a sequel to the WannaCry ransomware outbreak that struck after Windows XP support ended.

Upgrades and updates: C+

Everything seemed to be going so well for the "Windows as a Service" concept last year at this time. Microsoft had finally settled into a schedule of two feature updates per year, one in April and another in October, plus cumulative updates on the second Tuesday of each month. The two 2018 updates had been relatively problem-free.

And then the wheels fell off. Here's how I wrote about the mess that was Windows 10 version 1903 earlier this year:

Microsoft had grown cocky after a handful of relatively trouble-free feature updates to Windows 10, and had even bragged about how quickly it was able to roll out those semi-annual feature updates. That hubris caught up with them in late 2018.

Only days after rolling out version 1809 to the public, a pair of data-destroying bugs forced the company to pull the update from its servers. It took more than five weeks before the update was relaunched.

That painful experience inspired Microsoft to rethink its enthusiasm for those every-six-months updates. In the wake of the version 1809 debacle, the company promised major changes in the way it tracks product release, including a renewed focus on product quality.

The problems were significant enough that the normally stubborn Windows product team finally surrendered to public pressure and announced it would make feature updates optional until the current version was no longer supported. In addition, Microsoft is taking the unusual step of publicly declaring that this year's October release will be a relatively minor update, presumably to encourage corporate holdouts to upgrade before the New Year.

Those changes, along with much clearer notifications of restarts associated with pending updates, should go a long way toward mollifying Windows 10 users who are annoyed by updates that kick off at unexpected and invariably inconvenient times.

But they'll first have to earn back the trust of customers who are wary of being burned again.

Privacy: A

The competition has made this category too easy for Microsoft.

As I noted last year, the deluge of privacy complaints from Windows 10's first year has turned into a trickle and Windows 10 telemetry has become, for all but the most diehard critics, a non-issue.

After underestimating the public suspicion of data collection efforts from Big Tech, Microsoft quickly recalibrated. In early 2017 the company began sharing detailed information about exactly what it is and isn't monitoring with its telemetry software. It also modified Windows 10's default privacy settings to deal with complaints from European regulators.

Then, with the release of Windows 10 version 1803, Microsoft provided a new utility, the Windows Diagnostic Data Viewer, which allows anyone with an administrator account to inspect the telemetry data being collected from a device. That same update also included a Delete button that instantly clears any saved telemetry data.

As any Sherlock Holmes fan will appreciate, the most persuasive piece of evidence here is the dog that didn't bark. Privacy researchers have had four years to dig into telemetry transmissions from Windows 10, using their own tools as well as the official data viewer. So far, no privacy advocates or government agencies have come forward with any discoveries that contradict Microsoft's insistence that telemetry data is used only for product improvement.

Meanwhile, Facebook and Google have come under increasing pressure from privacy advocates and government regulators on multiple continents for egregious violations involving user data. In comparison, Microsoft's modest data collection, which isn't tied to advertising, looks like a model of restraint.

Security: A/B

As in previous years, I've assigned two grades to this category, reflecting the two very different groups of customers that use Windows.

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Over the past year, Microsoft has continued to expand its range of security features for enterprise customers, earning a solid A on my report card. Many of those security features aren't available for the consumer and small business segments of the market, which is why I've assigned a B for that category.

The list of enterprise features includes Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection, which is designed to detect threats that have made it past other defenses. For corporate customers, it's become a solid alternative to third-party security tools.

And speaking of third-party security software, maybe the time has come to dump third-party antivirus software altogether. It's consistently the biggest source of compatibility issues with new Windows 10 feature updates, and Microsoft Defender long ago passed the "good enough" landmark.

Apps: Incomplete

Once upon a time, Microsoft had high hopes for its Windows Store. It was to be a hub for games and music and movies and books and, of course, apps.

That effort began with Windows 8 and accelerated through Windows 10, but lately the renamed Microsoft Store seems much less strategic. For starters, it no longer includes any music or books. Both product categories were part of Microsoft's relentless shift away from nearly all consumer products and services, with the only exception being Xbox.

For Windows 10's two-year anniversary, I awarded an Incomplete in this category as we awaited the arrival of some key desktop apps in the Microsoft Store. Last year, those apps arrived, but they've done little to revitalize the app landscape.

As I noted in last year's report card:

You can now get Microsoft Office, Apple's iTunes, Slack, and Spotify from the Store, along with some other lower-profile desktop apps, courtesy of a software tool called the Desktop Bridge (previously code-named Centennial). Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a lot of reason to detour through the Store when every one of those apps is also available as a conventional download.

Meanwhile, Windows 10 crapware is a major annoyance for consumers and small business customers. When you install Windows 10 Pro on a new PC and sign in with a local account or a Microsoft account, you get more than you expected, with decidedly non-professional games like Candy Crush Soda Saga, Bubble Witch 3 Saga, and March of Empires splattered across the Start menu whether you want them or not.

For enterprise customers, there's a way to avoid these junk apps (see "Avoid Windows 10 crapware: How to get rid of Candy Crush and all the rest"), but everyone else has to grit their teeth and find the uninstall option.

The most important change in the Windows 10 app landscape is Microsoft's surprising decision to rip the Microsoft rendering engine out of its default Edge browser and replace it with one based on the open-source Chromium codebase. The developer previews have been available for a few months and the early experience is promising. But until the new code ships in Windows, this category will once again get an Incomplete.

Hardware: A-

It's hard to believe that Windows Phone was a big part of the original game plan for Windows 10, but that was four long years ago. Today, Microsoft's mobile ambitions are officially dead and buried, and the operating system aims squarely at PC markets.

As I noted last year, it doesn't hurt Microsoft's cause that Apple is stumbling badly in the Mac market, criticized for the quality of its keyboards, a lackadaisical approach to design, and a lackadaisical attitude about its professional customers. This year, the run of bad news for would-be Mac owners continues with the news that recent-vintage 15-inch MacBook Pro models are banned from airplanes because of the risk of battery fires.

Meanwhile, the embarrassment of riches in PC hardware continues, with a new crop of ARM-based notebooks vying for battery life records with devices built around latest-generation Intel processors. And the 10th-generation Intel processors due at the end of this year should enable more efficient designs, with more connectivity options than ever before.

Every year, some pundits declare the PC dead. But sales are holding steady and are even up year over year, as mobile professionals, gamers, and corporate IT departments decide that there really isn't a credible alternative yet. Maybe next year.