With Windows 10, Microsoft is doing something it’s never done before, and it goes to the heart of the fundamental shift the company is making.
The company just announced that members of the Windows Insider Program could download a new build of Windows 10 with some minor feature improvements like better memory management and new colour schemes.
The features themselves are no big deal. But the fact that Microsoft is still running the Insider Program, even though Windows 10 shipped last month, is a big deal.
Here’s the key sentence:
With the general availability of Windows 10, the Windows Insider Program will focus on building and delivering Windows as a service by updating Windows 10 with new features and functionality on an ongoing basis.
No more boulder
In the past, Microsoft built new versions of Windows like it was pushing a giant boulder up a hill.
The whole team would work heads down for two or three years aiming for the big launch date.
At some point before the actual release, Microsoft would allow interested parties — developers, IT professionals, Windows enthusiasts — to download a test (“beta,” usually) version of the new release. Those beta releases would get updated periodically with newer builds that were closer and closer to the final product.
But once the final product shipped, the beta program ended. Until the next release was almost ready to roll.
The release of a new version of Windows was usually the cue for most Windows employees to take a week-long vacation, then split into several groups. Some would go heads-down planning the next version, which would ship in another two to three years.
Others, known as sustained engineering, would get to work fixing the biggest problems with the newly released version, and release those updates as piecemeal patches (particularly for urgent security holes). Eventually, Microsoft would roll up all those patches, plus some feature updates, into annual (or so) releases known as Service Packs.
But this time around, Microsoft will trickle out a steady stream of small updates to Windows on a regular basis. Today was the first example, and Microsoft is keeping its beta testers around to help make sure these releases are stable before putting them out to all Windows 10 customers.
The inspiration for this is “cloud” services such as Salesforce or Google Apps, or Facebook on the consumer side. Microsoft’s 2012 acquisition of Yammer, a cloud collaboration service that did small piecemeal updates this way, has also had a big influence on the company, according to people there during the transition.
Microsoft hasn’t said whether Windows 10 will be the last huge new version of Windows ever released. But as the company moves more to cloud services like Office 365 and Azure, it makes less sense to have a whole huge team devoted to cranking out massive releases of Windows every two or three years.
Instead of a boulder, think a steady stream of pebbles.
And instead of a huge bump in Windows revenue — and a huge bump in corresponding marketing expenses — think of a more steady stream of revenue that tracks almost exactly to the PC upgrade cycle, plus a growing subscription business on the enterprise.