Microsoft released the latest annual update to its flagship Windows operating system today. It might be the least exciting launch in the 30-plus-year history of Windows. And that's just fine.
Technically, today's release marks the general availability of the Windows 11 2023 Update (also known as Windows 11, version 23H2). In a blog post, John Cable, the Microsoft VP in charge of making the Windows trains run on time, described the new version thusly: "We are providing a limited scope of new features and functionality delivered via a familiar, fast, and reliable update experience."
For those who don't speak Microsoft, allow me to translate: This update is extremely minor, in terms of the impact on your PC. If you're running last year's Windows 11 release (version 22H2), this one will arrive as a small package that turns on a handful of new features, increments the build number, and then closes. As far as core operating system files are concerned, there's no difference between the 2022 and 2023 versions. If you're still running the original 2021 release of Windows 11, though, your installation experience will be noticeably more intrusive, requiring a full Windows Setup that might take an hour or more.
Most of the new features that are turned on with the new update have already been released and are available for version 22H2 as well. The one Microsoft is pitching most prominently is Windows Copilot, which adds an AI prompt in a sidebar on the right side of the Windows display. For a full list of those previously released features, see "The latest Windows 11 update is rolling out now. Here's what's new."
The new features that are exclusive to this release aren't exactly groundbreaking. The Chat app has been renamed Microsoft Teams (Free) and is now pinned to the taskbar by default. Microsoft promises it will offer "a mini communications experience that makes it possible to chat, call, meet, and create a space for community groups to come together, organize, and share ideas in just a click or two."
In addition, a half-dozen or so apps that are included with Windows 11 are getting a new System tag on the All Apps menu. They're also getting their own page in Settings > System > System Components. The list includes the Microsoft Store app as well as Game Bar and Phone Link. And yes, that extremely minor change gets its own full paragraph in the blog post announcing this "streamlined update," which just underscores how anodyne the Windows 11 2023 Update really is.
The process of automatic updates will roll out slowly, Microsoft says, over the next several months. If you're already running Windows 11, version 22H2, you can choose to update immediately by going to Settings > Windows Update. Turn on Get the latest updates as soon as they're available and then check for updates. Note that upgrades on some devices might be blocked (Microsoft calls it a "safeguard hold") if the device has known compatibility issues.
With this year's low-key release, Microsoft has come almost full circle on its Windows upgrade strategy. Back in 2015, with the launch of Windows 10, the company kicked off the "Windows as a Service" era. That eventually turned into a grueling slog of twice-annual feature updates that annoyed customers and overtaxed engineers. The light bulb finally came on in Redmond after the September 2018 update shipped with a bug that deleted customers' data. Oops.
Anyway, most of the people who were involved in those design decisions are long gone from Microsoft, and the company has apparently retreated to the decidedly old-school approach of shipping a new Windows version every three years. This means Windows 11 is on a glide path to early retirement and Windows 12 is probably only a few months away from making its way to Windows Insider channels for beta testing.
The good news is that all these feature updates and new versions are free. Once upon a time, Microsoft relied on revenue from PC hobbyists and business customers paying for Windows upgrades. No more. Today, Microsoft's Windows division brings in its revenue the old-fashioned way, by selling OEM licenses to companies like HP, Dell, and Lenovo. They in turn install the latest version of Windows on the PCs they sell to consumers and business customers worldwide, and then Microsoft collects additional revenue from that installed base by selling services like Microsoft 365 and Xbox Live.
Or, to put it another way: Windows as a Service has transformed into Microsoft as a Service. Enterprise administrators have a lengthy menu of security and productivity services they can choose from. Consumers and small businesses can pay extra for cloud storage in OneDrive. You can get a one-month free trial to Microsoft 365 and then pay $99 a year for a subscription that includes five licenses. If you're signed in with a local account, you will be urged to switch to a free Microsoft account. You will see those offers as pop-ups and toast notifications when you upgrade your operating system, a development that makes some longtime Windows users shake their heads.
But the reality is that Microsoft has done a serviceable job of turning its flagship OS into a boring piece of it-just-works software that also includes links to its highly profitable online services. If you don't like that, well, get a Mac. By the way, can we interest you in a subscription to Apple One?