At the moment, I am not a fan of the "Windows-as-a-service" update delivery model Microsoft uses with Windows 10. Learn why—and what I think Microsoft should do about it.

Let's discuss Windows 10. Specifically, I'd like to share my opinion why, as of this writing in December 2018, I think Microsoft's current Windows Client servicing model does not work for either businesses or consumers.

Historically, you will remember that Microsoft traditionally released a new Windows Client version every few years. To wit:

  • Windows XP: October 25, 2001
  • Windows Vista: November 30, 2006
  • Windows 7: October 22, 2009
  • Windows 8: October 26, 2012
  • Windows 10: July 29. 2015

In keeping with twenty-first-century information technology trends such as DevOps and continuous integration/continuous deployment, Microsoft accelerated its pace of Windows Client development. They call this new OS-servicing model Windows as a service.

Twice a year Microsoft releases feature updates that essentially amount to an operating system upgrade. These feature updates incorporate not only bugfixes released since the previous feature update but also (wait for it) new features.

On the second Tuesday of each month ("Patch Tuesday"), Microsoft releases quality updates. What's different about Windows 10 quality updates is they are cumulative, and we can't break them down into individual bugfix installers like previous Windows Client versions used.

Businesses can build deployment rings for managing Windows 10 updates. These rings define environments for Windows Client servicing. Basically, you have four deployment rings to choose from:

  • Preview: Intended for testing prerelease Windows 10 builds
  • Targeted: Intended for quality assurance (QA) testing before you deploy to your production systems
  • Broad: Intended for release to your production systems
  • Critical: Intended for critical-use systems where you need to be extra selective about updates
Windows as a service: servicing branches (with "courtesy" from Microsoft)

Windows as a service: servicing branches (with "courtesy" from Microsoft)

The long-term servicing channel (LTSC) targets specialized Windows 10 devices that for stability reasons should not receive feature updates. Examples of these devices include point-of-sale (POS) systems, medical equipment, and the like.

As you probably know, we Windows systems administrators have a few tools in our arsenal for managing updates and their associated deployment rings:

  • Windows Update for Business (aka Group Policy)
  • Windows Server Update Services (WSUS)
  • System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM)

Okay, enough backstory. Let's get to my arguments why I think Windows as a service in its current state is a bad fit for Windows Client.

Microsoft's reduced emphasis on QA testing ^

You may know that in 2014 Microsoft laid off half of their QA software testers in the Operating Systems Group (OSG).

Since 2014 Microsoft appears to use the following people and groups as their de facto Windows Client QA testers:

  • The Microsoft Windows 10 software engineers themselves
  • Third-party contractors
  • The Windows Insider program contributors
  • Customers (sad to say this)

The net result of this situation is that we are seeing more bugs than ever make their way into Windows 10 release code. Here, let me give you a sampling of some recent tech news headlines concerning the Fall 2018 (1809) Windows 10 feature release:

Note: The Windows 10 version number corresponds to the year and month of that particular feature update. Therefore, version 1809 is supposed to represent September 2018, although we all know Microsoft missed that target due to these catastrophic bugs.

The fact Microsoft released these bugs to the general public is simply unacceptable. "Where are the Windows Insiders?" you might ask. From what the tech news tells us, they were vocal about these bugs and reported them. However, Microsoft evidently misunderstood them or overlooked the bug reports.

Administrators do not have enough control over updates ^

As I mentioned already, monthly Windows 10 quality updates are cumulative and don't break down into individual knowledge base (KB) fixes. Microsoft does this to reduce fragmentation among the Windows 10 user base.

Of course, the fatal flaw to this strategy is that sometimes a quality update may include a KB fix that breaks functionality in your environment. What can you do then?

Yes, you have WSUS, System Center, and Group Policy. However, these tools simply allow you to defer an update, not customize its granularity. Sadly, deferring updates means leaving unpatched systems in your environment, which increases their attack surface.

Feature updates are a heavy lift for consumers ^

How often do non-technical users perform an operating system upgrade? If your experience is similar to mine, not often, if ever. With the semiannual feature updates, however, this situation is much different.

Instead of a brief patch installation and perhaps a system restart, the feature updates involve a much longer-running invasive process that, at least in my experience, many users do not expect or want.

This situation becomes more complicated if a feature update contains a "fix" that breaks functionality on their systems. In a consumer environment, obtaining reliable technical help can be a befuddling, expensive, and even a risky proposition.

What I think Microsoft should do ^

Speaking as an IT professional who has worked professionally with Windows since Windows 3.1, I think Microsoft should release no more than one feature update per year. Second, they should consider adding more QA staff to their consumer operating system group. Failing that, at the very least, they should (much) more rigorously act on feedback that Windows Insider program volunteers submit.

Despite Microsoft's desire for limited OS fragmentation, I think the monthly quality updates should allow decomposition. This would help businesses keep their client systems as current as possible while avoiding downtime that problems linked to individual KB packages cause.

Ultimately, what bothers me most is that the Windows Client teams appear to be concerned with innovating new features rather than ensuring code stability. Who cares about a dark theme or new icons when we have showstopping bugs leaking into the consumer and corporate space!

Let me end on a high note: Windows 10 is a great OS release, right up there with Windows XP in terms of its overall usability and stability, in spite of these update problems. The new Microsoft chief Satya Nadella definitely accepts customer feedback, plays better with competitors than ever before, and will right the ship eventually.

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Also read: Why Microsoft is using Windows customers as guinea pigs - Reply to Tim Warner

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11 Comments
  1. Ken 3 years ago

    Here, here... Total agreement from another 25+ year IT veteran. I'm personally tired of being Microsoft's beta tester and long for a solid, stable version that I don't need to massage into full functionality.

  2. Thanks Tim for speaking out what many of us 'traditional' Sysadmins think.

    Hope that we'll be heard 🙂

  3. Jeff 3 years ago

    This is one of the primary reasons we're moving as much of our desktop and developer infrastructure to Linux as possible.  Windows 10 has become too unstable to use in production on top of it's excessive phoning home of "metrics" (otherwise known as advertising data).  I also do not like our people being beta testers for MS.  After all, isn't that what we pay our licensing and support fees for???  This product has gone off the rails and should be barred from use on Gov't systems.

    • I am from Munich. The city moved about 20,000 desktops to Linux and the project essentially failed. It seems they will go to back to Windows, not because Windows is so great, but because there are no real alternatives. This is why Microsoft can afford treating customers like this. Nadella still benefits from the monopoly Gates has created. I think it is about time that we get some real competition in this market. I guess at the moment Google is our only hope. Open source alone without a big company behind it won't do the trick. We know this now.

  4. It is difficult to understand what the future of Windows will be. Starting from Windows 10 the situation is getting worse with Windows 10, I do not mention Vista and Windows 8 as they were a bad example of how NOT to make an operating system. Certainly the latest release of Windows 18.09 was a bad example of an untested and blown update without proper work of serious verification of the problems incurred during the beta phase. Microsof in this case would have a lot to learn from Apple. All the annual releases of OS X, all new versions are safe, and the models that support it are also known, and which ones are not able to benefit from the new versions. In short, another world ...

  5. David Levine 3 years ago

    Windows ME, Vista, 8 ... Redmond seems to get it right every other release, but then just barely. As stated above monopolistic profit motivation seems to be the driving force. Windows 10 is the best yet, and was constructed with more "user" input than ever, but the update scenario is deadly for enterprise, unless they have large IT teams to construct all the other "best practice" Microsoftware systems to control their workers' desktops. In my small enterprise environment (in higher ed), I use LTSB on as many desktops as possible. Though I feel bad when I read how I really should not be doing that, I feel much better when I read other IT folks feeling the same way, so, though you aren't saying to use LTSB (and LTSC), what you've posted here is supportive, so thank you very much for this encouragement Timothy!

    "Windows as a service" is a horrible idea! Software needing constant updating is software that is NEVER READY. "Final stable version" is a long-gone concept.  For a widely used operating system to be handled this way is awful. Apple and Microsoft have goaded one another down this sad and bumpy road, and we are all hostages now. Thanks Obama! JK

  6. Brian Gonzalez 3 years ago

    Great write-up!  You forgot to mention one other mishap Microsoft made.  They are supporting September feature updates for 30 months and only 18 months for March updates.  I've yet to read any article or blog to make sense of this approach..

  7. John IL 3 years ago

    I think most users use Windows because all there software runs on it. Not sure how many ever felt deprived of feature updates because updates were much further apart? I'm sure many of us would gladly trade less feature updates for better stability. I think Microsoft completely overestimated its ability to properly update so many devices twice a year and not have a lot of hiccups along the way. Even worse Microsoft tries to take over driver updates, which don't always mean better stability. I would rather leave driver updates to the PC makers. 

    • @John IL

      I think Microsoft completely overestimated its ability to properly update so many devices twice a year and not have a lot of hiccups along the way.

      I completely agree with you on this.

      Even worse Microsoft tries to take over driver updates, which don't always mean better stability. I would rather leave driver updates to the PC makers.

      This was the former situation. Since Microsoft started to make drives themselves, they say they have less Blue Screens of Death...

      However, for more optimized drivers you can still install those of the device manufacturer, but it's at your own risk. It's your choice...

      • I think Microsoft completely overestimated its ability to properly update so many devices twice a year and not have a lot of hiccups along the way.
        I completely agree with you on this.

        I disagree. I am sure that Microsoft has very precise data on the number of bugs they create with every update. I think Microsoft, and in particular Nadella, only overestimated the willingness of users to accept this new unreliability of Windows. All those bugs are seen as collateral damage in the sake of innovation. This worked very well in the Gates era and helped Microsoft to wipe out many competitors. Windows 95 and Windows NT were much more unreliable than Windows 10. My guess is that Nadella is a Gates admirer which is why he got the job in the first place. The problem is that the times have changed.

        The IT industry has become the backbone of almost any other industry. Companies no longer tolerate unreliability and end users are aware that other OS makers are much more reliable than Microsoft. One reason why Windows Mobile and Windows Phone failed is because most end users no longer trust the Microsoft brand. Nobody wants to have a phone that is as unreliable as Windows. Many just keep using Windows on the desktop because they don't see an affordable alternative.

  8. Istvan Nagy 2 years ago

    For end users, the minimum is to allow manual switch to opt out permanently of any feature and (YES!) "security" updates also. I know in 2002 many PCs got bricked due to OS security vulnerability, but that was the only one I experienced, while I experienced my computer bricked by windows update 3 times. The updates are 3x worse than virus attacks. The medicine killed the patient 3 times. I don't want more snake oil updates, that include so called security updates too.

    It is a different story to advise users not to opt out of ALL updates, than not ALLOWING them to opt out.

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