If everything succeeds for Windows 10, this will be the last Top 10 new Windows feature you will ever read.
If it fails, this will certainly be the case as well.
As of now, Windows is a continuously updated operating system. When there are new features available, consumers will boot their PCs one morning and find them suddenly there.
Optionally, consumers can defer feature updates for a few days or so while they make preparations (a euphemistic way of saying, sending emails of terror to third-party software vendors).
But once updates happen, they happen. This is scary on so many levels.
One Windows user at a tech conference said, “You mean the next time they [mess] up the interface, we have to live with it?”
Another said, “Great. They’re making Windows into Android.”
The Long Road to Continuity
“Let’s take a second to discuss Android,” said Microsoft Executive Vice President Terry Myerson, during a company developers’ conference last May, “where Google takes no responsibility to update their customers’ devices. Refuses to take responsibility to update their devices, leaving end users and businesses increasingly exposed, every day they’re using Android devices.
“Google just ships a big pile of ... code,” Myerson continued, pretending to correct himself, “and then just leaves you exposed, with no commitments to update your devices.”
Businesses — especially customers of Microsoft’s Software Assurance program — already expect Microsoft to make good on its commitment to keep their infrastructure in tune and up-to-date. But they also will not stand for changes that fail to follow their own itineraries.
This is what this #1 item is truly about: With the Business and Enterprise editions, Microsoft is giving administrators a way to make updates follow their schedules — to effectively dam up the wellspring of change to give developers and admins the time they need to make their own adjustments.
In 2011, the week Microsoft first announced it would move toward updating Windows continually, businesses responded with an uproar. They were already testing their applications in a virtual environment before carefully rolling out major upgrades, and a growing number of them were testing monthly patches the same way.
A business cannot afford for its information infrastructure to be continually under construction, they said.
That Microsoft was completely caught off-guard by the response was just one indicator of the extent to which it had disconnected with the needs of its business customers. There were some in the company (a few of whom are no longer there) who were genuinely put off by the discovery, as if it were being sprung upon them like a practical joke.
How did you expect businesses to adapt their testing processes to a continual product cycle, I asked? We at Microsoft listen to our customers, came the response, and of the many things our customers tell us they love, continual product testing was not one of them.
Thus, they concluded, since businesses do not want it, evidently they do not need it. Did I mention some of those folks are no longer with the company?
Distribution Branches and/or Rings
On July 29, Microsoft launched its continuous Windows 10 update program. No longer will updates and patches wait until the first Tuesday of the month, and no longer will new features be dangled out like candy-glazed carrots into the indefinite future.
“In the enterprise, you’ve been giving us a lot of feedback,” said Microsoft’s Terry Myerson last May. “You’ve been saying you have these mission-critical devices where reliability is paramount. You want to minimize code churn to just security updates.”
What began last February with the “Insider Program,” where testers received Windows 10 updates on their choice of a slow or fast schedule, continues into the company’s new distribution branches.
Although Microsoft’s many managers have mixed up this metaphor from time to time over the past eight months, each branch is comprised of distribution rings, which represent one step in the dissemination of updates and patches.
Whereas Windows Update used to be a centralized hub, under this new system, the mechanism becomes a peer-to-peer distribution scheme. Among consumers, one device in a home network may be capable of dispatching updates to all the others.
And in a scheme that has awakened some of the conspiracy theorists I had thought were buried in a pile of old Computerworlds, some PCs that have already received updates can pass them on to other PCs somewhere, in a P2P file-sharing system not unlike BitTorrent.
For consumers, distribution rings would be comprised of devices along the branch sharing updates to and from each other.
For businesses (at least for now) there will be three main branches. The branch slowest than the fastest one, dubbed the “Current Branch for Business,” is staged at a lower cadence. You read accurately: The “Current Branch” is not the fastest branch.
(It’s a scheme pioneered by Google five years ago for its Chrome browser, and rather responsibly at that. But don’t tell Terry Myerson.)
Take Your Time
The company says its aim for these distribution branches is to give admins adequate time to prepare their production systems. In fact, when the idea of the Current Branch was first revealed in a company blog post last January, it was literally suggested that the optional lower cadence gives updates a chance for consumers to test them first, and discover any bugs that may exist before businesses are faced with them.
“By the time Current Branch for Business machines are updated,” wrote Corporate Vice President Jim Alkove, “the changes will have been validated by millions of Insiders, consumers and customers’ internal test processes for several months, allowing updates to be deployed with this increased assurance of validation.”
Last May, Myerson continued that theme, albeit with half-sentences, associating “confidence in the highest-quality patches” with “testing them with this incredibly broad population.”
The slowest branch, called the Long-Term Servicing Branch, may roll up feature changes as long as two years before deploying them to select businesses, such as hospitals and financial institutions that can’t yet afford for their information infrastructure to be updated so fluidly.
This would be more like the two-year product cycle to which institutions have grown accustomed since MS-DOS in the 1980s. You may recall several years ago, when Microsoft first suggested that Windows product release cycles would be shortened to 12 to 18 months, these institutions were among those objecting loudest.
In the Update for Business system, rings are the distribution paths for updates. Admins can individually designate which devices are attached to these rings. And they can have more direct control over which ring receives what update, and when.
As Myerson promised last May, admins in the new scheme will be able to assign “maintenance windows” (small “w”) to individual devices, designating frames of time in which they can expect to be updated; or, in the reverse, to block off segments of time when updates are to be withheld, including “during the day” or “during the night.”
These choices are due to be integrated into future editions of System Center Configuration Manager, which has been Windows Server’s key remote deployment system since 1994.
It’s this distribution scheme which has enabled Microsoft to push the first RTM bits of Windows 10 to a number it has claimed as hundreds of millions of devices in just the first week.
You’d think such a scheme would lead to OS fragmentation. Myerson even admitted that “with selective patching, we sometimes have these customer-specific quality risks, because not all the patches are deployed.
“Likewise, selective patching can introduce platform fragmentation, which creates quality risks and complications for developers,” he continued, “impeding innovation and causing some customer-specific issues.”
Evidently Microsoft is aware of the idea that problems can happen, and is citing Android as a negative example of what they can lead to. Something else Android has led to in recent years is widespread market acceptance.
In any event, the die has been cast. If Windows becomes a unified system across all devices, from the cloud to the phone, then Windows Update for Business will be the reason why. If Windows becomes fragmented into a thousand unmanageable shards, then Windows Update for Business will be the reason why.
Either this scheme works, or Windows joins the realm of relics memorialized by Wikipedia pages, along with GeoWorks, Amiga Workench and HyperCard.
This, as Bugs Bunny used to sing, is it.