With new feature update calendar, Microsoft finally settles on a sensible Windows 10 release schedule

This week, Microsoft announced that its next feature update will be the most low-key Windows 10 version ever. You could even call it what it really is: a service pack. Here's why Microsoft wants no upgrade drama as 2020 approaches.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

Microsoft just reinvented the service pack. Oh, I know that the blog post announcing the release schedule for the 19H2 Windows 10 feature update was filled with highfalutin' language about a "scoped set of features" and a "less disruptive" installation process. But can we just call it what it is?

This is a service pack.

The 19H2 release, which will probably be called the Windows 10 October 2019 Update, will not include the normal laundry list of new user-facing features. Instead, it will deliver "select performance improvements, enterprise features and quality enhancements." And instead of requiring a long upgrade-style installation, with multiple restarts, this feature update "will install like a monthly update" on PCs that are running the latest Windows 10 release, version 1903.

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Like I said, it's a service pack.

And to sweeten the deal for upgrade-shy enterprise customers, the 19H2 release will be fully supported for 30 months. Given that it's essentially a service pack for the 1903 release, that lifecycle effectively creates a three-year rolling upgrade calendar for IT pros who are responsible for managing a fleet of Windows 10 PCs.

Even that schedule undoubtedly feels aggressive to IT pros, but it's significantly more palatable than the previous schedule of feature updates that had to be dealt with every six months

The big question now is whether this is a one-time breather in the "Windows as a service" schedule or whether it becomes the new normal for Windows 10 releases.

The timing is certainly no accident. The 19H2 Windows 10 feature update is the last Windows 10 release before the end of free support for Windows 7 on January 14, 2020. The last thing Microsoft wants is any kind of discouraging publicity about negative upgrade experiences in those final few months before the free support window closes.

This week's announcement is the latest in a series of major changes to the Windows 10 release schedule, including some that represent a 180-degree turnaround from the original "Windows as a service" model.

The new rules depend on which Windows edition you've deployed.

For OEM and retail Windows editions, even the lowly Windows 10 Home, feature updates are no longer mandatory. Instead, the twice-yearly feature updates are offered on PCs that Microsoft's algorithms deem suitable; but instead of being queued up alongside the monthly cumulative updates, the feature update is offered as an optional update that the PC's owner has to approve manually. You're free to ignore that prompt for as long as the current version is supported, or a maximum of 18 months.

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On PCs running Windows 10 Pro, updates are delivered the same way, with the same 18-month support cycle. The major difference is that administrators can defer monthly cumulative updates by up to 30 days and can defer feature updates by up to 365 days. On a PC where you've used the Windows 10 Settings app or applied Group Policy to defer feature updates, the option to update to the next release doesn't appear at all until the deferral period ends or the current version reaches its end-of-support date.

In practice, that means anyone running Windows 10 Pro in a business setting should plan for an annual Windows 10 feature update. You can choose to wait longer than 12 months, but that strategy risks bumping into an end-of-support date and having to deal with a forced feature update.

Customers running Windows 10 Enterprise and Education get the longest support calendar, thanks to Microsoft's Linux-style support calendar for those editions. If you missed the announcement last September, here's a quick refresher:

Microsoft is moving to separate support lifecycles for its twice-yearly releases. The March updates will have an 18-month support cycle for all editions, whereas the September release will get the longer, 30-month support cycle for Enterprise and Education editions. (All Windows 10 Pro releases are supported for 18 months.)

For all intents and purposes, Microsoft is adopting a release cadence that is strikingly similar to what Linux users are already familiar with. Ubuntu Linux, for example, has a nearly identical twice-yearly release schedule, offering Long Term Support (LTS) versions in the spring and interim releases in the fall.

The upshot for Enterprise customers is that they can install version 1903 late in 2019 and plan to install the 19H2 release as a lightweight update when it's ready. And with that "service pack" in place, they can leave those PCs alone for two full years, until the second half of 2021.

That option has been the missing piece of the puzzle for many enterprise customers who wanted something less drastic than the Long Term Servicing Channel (LTSC) release.

Will Microsoft try the same major-minor release strategy in 2020? It would certainly make sense, especially with the company's Windows 7 extended support prices set to rise significantly at the end of the year and again at the end of 2021. Those price increases and a no-drama upgrade experience this year could be just what's needed to prod those last Windows 7 stragglers onto the upgrade express.

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