It is no exaggeration to state that this weeks announcement from Microsoft about their Windows as a Service (WaaS) changes for cumulative and feature updates is one of the most significant updates for Windows 10 since it was released back in July 2015.

The post over on the official Windows blog comes from Mike Fortin a Corporate Vice President for Windows. He is also the name behind the series of posts about the quality of Windows 10 updates over the last six months since the challenging roll out of Windows 10 Version 1809 last fall.

In this latest update, which caught many Microsoft watchers off guard, the Redmond company details how they plan to hand back control for system updates to end users. The change does not give those end users the ability to completely shut off updates, that would be a return to a wild west of systems lacking patches and therefore vulnerable to malicious software and exploits, but it does let them better stipulate when they want those updates to install on their system.

As these changes are being implemented, the first shift relates to Windows 10 (19H1) which has been in development since July 2018. As Fortin states, these changes are intended to insure a better quality release by taking the following steps as development of this seventh feature update is wrapped up:

  • The update will be know under the marketing name Windows 10 May 2019 Update, My past use of April 2019 Update is now rescinded!
  • The latest build of Windows 10 (19H1), 18362.30, will be made available in the Release Preview Ring the week of April 8th for further testing. Windows Insiders and Microsoft Partners will get the chance to test the build for bugs and compatibility issues during the final few weeks of testing. This is significant because the troubled Windows 10 Version 1809 feature update last October completely skipped this testing ring.
  • After testing in Release Preview, the May 2019 Update will be made available to systems using AI/ML data about compatibility and likelihood of the update being successfully installed beginning in late May. In the past, Microsoft has called this Seeker Mode. Although not stated, I would expect it to be available via the Media Creation Tool and Update Assistant around the same time.

All of the above changes are good choices by Microsoft. The more end user systems that are able to run the potential release candidate for this feature update, means a broader variety of hardware to identify potential compatibility issues and other bugs.

Next up in Microsoft’s changes to the WaaS process with the May 2019 Update is a new approach to the distribution of monthly cumulative and semi-annual feature updates for users.

In the past, Windows 10 Home users had no control over when these updates were installed while Windows 10 Pro users had some options for delaying updates but there was a cap for how many days you could wait to see those installed.

The first change to WaaS is that all editions of Windows 10 will now have the same options when it comes to control over updates. No more confusion between the different SKUs of Windows 10. Of course, those systems managed within a corporate or enterprise environment do retain control over end user systems when it comes to distribution of updates.

Control of Windows 10 updates is changing as follows:

  • Feature and monthly updates can now be paused up to 35 days. This delay is done seven days at a time which means up to five deferrals of the pending updates. In the past, delaying updates meant mandatory check and install of pending updates before additional delay time was available. That requirement is now gone. After 35 days any pending feature and monthly updates will have to be installed.
  • Microsoft introduced Active Hours with the Anniversary Update in 2016 but it depended on the user manually configuring the hours to avoid updates. Based on data, Microsoft determined that most just left the default 8 AM to 5 PM hours in place. Now users can select Intelligent Active Hours to let Windows Update adjust the potential update window based on usage of that specific device.
  • In order to avoid any impact on system performance, both Windows Updates and app updates from the Microsoft Store will be done while the user is away from their device.

Among all these very significant changes to WaaS, the one that stands out is that the semi-annual feature updates for Windows 10 will be offered to users when the AI/ML data shows no blocks and a high likelihood of success however, they will not be automatically installed.

A new Download and Install feature is being implemented with the release of the May 2019 Update which will present the pending feature update to the end user in the Windows Update UI.

Windows 10 Download and Install Option
Windows Update Feature Update Download and Install UI (Image via Microsoft)

If an end user wants to upgrade to this new feature update once it is offered for their system, they just click on the Download and install now link.

Under this change, it will be the users choice of when to install the latest feature update. However, if the currently installed feature update is reaching its end of support date, that is 18 months after release on the consumer side, then the automatic process will kick in using the existing approach which offers the update to the end user. That automatic offering of the feature update can be delayed up to 35 days using the new delay options mentioned above but at the end of that 35 day period it will be installed.

While many will see this as Microsoft retaining control beyond what they are offering end users with these other changes, it is a move to continue to insure that the Windows 10 ecosystem remains secure and patched. Since its release back in July 2015, Windows 10 has always been low on the list when these global ransomware and malware attacks occur. Microsoft wants to keep that security and integrity moving forward.

Still, these changes means that an end user can feasibly go 18 months before installing a new feature update. That is a much longer windows of stability for those who prefer to not be on the leading edge of feature updates on their devices.

As I stated at the top of this article, this is by far one of the biggest concessions Microsoft has made around Windows 10 and WaaS. However, it is also a concession that establishes a solid balance between user control and system safety, integrity and security.

What are your thoughts on these changes?

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