Microsoft, which has not given up on pushing frequent feature changes to Windows 10 users, this week introduced the concept of Windows Feature Experience Packs as a way to increase the number of times during a year when customers receive new shiny things.
On Monday, Microsoft released a preview of a first Windows Feature Experience Pack to participants in the company’s Windows Insider beta program. “By testing this process first with Windows Insiders, we hope to expand the scope and the frequency of releases in the future,” Brandon LeBlanc, a senior program manager, wrote in a post to a company blog. “Eventually, Windows Feature Experience Pack updates will get folded into the already existing servicing process for Windows 10 and delivered to customers that way through Windows Update.”
These feature packs, for lack of a better short form, have been bubbling in Redmond for some time: Two years ago, a Windows 10 support document mentioned them. (ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley, who reported Monday on LeBlanc’s post, had also called out the Windows Feature Experience Pack in June as it was being delivered to some users.)
The idea behind the feature packs, LeBlanc explained, is to ship “features and experiences” using a mechanism outside the two-a-year feature upgrade cycle already established for Windows 10. (Such features and functionalities could be installed independently of the OS because they were developed to be independent of the operating system, as, for example, is the Edge browser.)
This debut included just two minor enhancements to existing features. The first allows users to save screenshots or snippets of the screen captured by the Snip & Sketch tool to a designated folder, rather than automatically to the Pictures/Screenshots folder. The other supports a split keyboard for the touch keyboard on 2-in-1 devices.
Windows Feature Experience Packs will be served up to users through Windows Update, as LeBlanc said. They will thus rely on the same servicing technology used to deploy each month’s security update, the other monthly deliveries (including the optional updates on the third or fourth Tuesday of each month) and notably, the “minor” feature upgrades for Windows 10 shipped in November of both 2019 and 2020.
Okay, but why?
In 2019, Microsoft initiated a major-minor feature upgrade cadence, where the first upgrade of the year — the one released in the spring — was followed by one much smaller in the fall. The first contained numerous feature and functionality additions or improvements, and was delivered in the standard operating system upgrade fashion, necessitating a complete replacement of the OS. The second included all of the fixes issued since the first as well as a very limited number of feature additions; because of its construction, it could be processed and installed as was one of the multiple monthly updates. (In fact, the entirety of the second “upgrade” was embedded in the code of one of those monthly cumulative updates, then activated with a minute bit of code received later.)
“Windows Feature Experience Pack updates will be delivered to Insiders through Windows Update just like builds and cumulative updates are,” LeBlanc wrote.
That characteristic means that Microsoft intends these updates to be substantially faster to process than a true feature upgrade, even if they’re not unobtrusive. (LeBlanc noted that a feature pack requires a device restart, something a Patch Tuesday security update does not.) It also means Microsoft envisions these updates occurring far more frequently than do feature upgrades, perhaps as often as monthly.
The latter will likely concern commercial customers, their IT personnel, specifically. As a group, IT hasn’t been enthusiastic about Microsoft’s Windows-as-a-service tempo; in a survey earlier this year, nearly six in every 10 admins polled said the upgrades were not useful or rarely so. Further, only 17% of the administrators preferred the current two-per-year upgrade frequency, while 75% wanted only one upgrade annually or one upgrade every two years.
Microsoft’s upgrade pace effectively slipped from twice annually to just once each year starting in 2019, when it went to the major-minor cadence. Now it’s thinking of upping the frequency with Windows Feature Experience Packs?
Microsoft has never showed evidence that customers clamored for its Windows 10-as-a-service model, that they thought it made their wards more secure or that those customers considered Windows 10 a better OS as a result of frequent upgrades. In point of fact, since Windows 10’s debut five years ago — even before its launch — users have complained about Microsoft’s upgrade practice, griping about everything from their velocity to disruptiveness, and questioning their value and Microsoft’s motives. Customers have adapted to the new servicing strategy because they have had to, not because they wanted to.
The Windows Feature Experience Pack concept is more of the same. Almost as important, the feature packs contradict Microsoft’s shift toward fewer upgrades, exemplified by the 30 months of support for Windows 10 Enterprise’s upgrades and the once-a-year cadence for Windows 10 Home and Windows 10 Pro. From that to, what, yet another way to distribute updates? Again, why?
Microsoft should answer that — and for once, before it metes out the shift. Customers, particularly the paying customers on the commercial side, deserve that.