Windows chief Terry Myerson proclaimed the advent of Windows-as-a-service at an event last month. But what does that mean? A more recent post from Enterprise and Security Directory Jim Alkove offers some clues.
First, here is what Myerson said:
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Once a Windows device is upgraded to Windows 10, we will continue to keep it current for the supported lifetime of the device – at no additional charge. With Windows 10, the experience will evolve and get even better over time.
We’ll deliver new features when they’re ready, not waiting for the next major release. We think of Windows as a Service – in fact, one could reasonably think of Windows in the next couple of years as one of the largest Internet services on the planet.
And just like any Internet service, the idea of asking ‘What version are you on?’ will cease to make sense – which is great news for our Windows developers.
A rosy picture; but it is never that easy. Apple’s iOS platform is the furthest ahead in terms of keeping users on the latest and greatest, but still not every user upgrades and older devices are stuck with old versions, or users may prefer them for performance reasons.
Businesses tend to be more conservative than consumers, preferring a stable and consistent platform despite missing out on new features. Users tend to run a limited set of applications, and the priority is to keep them running correctly rather than risk breaking them with unnecessary upgrades.
How then will Microsoft handle this? According to Alkove, there will be two branches of Windows 10:
Long Term Servicing (LTS) branch: security and critical updates only, no new features for the “duration of mainstream (five years) and extended (five years) support”.
Current Branch for Business (CBB): feature updates after these are “shipped broadly to consumers”, delivered either by Windows Update or WSUS (Windows Server Update Services), the latter giving control over which updates are deployed.
The reference to consumers suggests that Microsoft intends to continue its “Windows Insider” program, currently used to obtain Windows 10 previews, after the operating system has shipped. “By the time Current branch for Business machines are updated, the changes will have been validated by millions of Insiders, consumers and customers’ internal test processes for several months,” says Alkove.
The implication is that CBB will be the same core build as the latest non-preview consumer version, leaving aside differences in editions (Windows with Bing at one end, and Enterprise at the other).
That said, there will be more than one LTS branch supported at any one time, Alkove tells us:
We expect to provide new Long Term Servicing Branches at appropriate time intervals, which will incorporate new functionality. Customers will be able to move devices easily from the Long Term Servicing branches they are currently on, to the next Long Term Servicing branch, as well as be able to skip one – using in place upgrade technology in Windows 10.
It will also be possible to move from LTS to CBB, or from CBB to the next LTS (no downgrade option).
What is an “appropriate time interval”? That is not clear; it could be the three years or so which historically has divided major Windows releases, or it could be something much shorter.
It is also possible that the next LTS release after Windows 10, or some future LTS release, will be called Windows 11.
There is also the matter of licensing costs. Enterprise customers can only upgrade to Windows 10 if they maintain Software Assurance, a Microsoft support subscription, unlike other Windows users who can upgrade for free for the “supported lifetime of the device,” whatever that turns out to mean. The same may well be true for moving from one LTS or CBB version to the next.
The above suggests that Myerson’s statement that asking "What version are you on?" will cease to make sense is a stretch, though if LTS usage is reserved for the types of deployment called out by Alkove, “systems powering hospital emergency rooms, air traffic control towers, financial trading systems, factory floors, just to name a few,” then a scenario is possible where most of the Windows 10 machines on which users are likely to install apps are either at CBB or the latest consumer refresh.
History tells that users tend to be cautious about upgrading Windows to new versions, and with good reason. Peripherals may stop working, applications break, or users may find innovations like new Start screens not to their taste. The reality is that developers will have to care about “which version are you on” for a long while yet.®