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cadence

Pandemic will push Microsoft to repeat 2019’s major-minor Win10 upgrade cadence

Although Microsoft has not yet said how it will deal out the year’s Windows 10 feature upgrades, it’s becoming clear there’s next to no reason for the company to diverge from 2019’s major-minor cadence.

As the death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic continues to climb worldwide, and the disruption of modern life and business continues to sow chaos, 2020 will be a tough year no matter how one cuts it. In a time of unprecedented changes triggered by the novel coronavirus, there’s no rationale to change what worked for Windows 10 last year.

Microsoft, of course, will do what it wants – and commercial customers will have to deal with the results. But there are good reasons why the Redmond, Wash. company should seriously rethink any plan to mess with 2019’s release scheme.

First, a short recap of last year

For the two years 2017 and 2018, Microsoft’s Windows 10 feature upgrade practice consisted of two more-or-less-equally-robust refreshes containing new features and functionality. Those upgrades arrived in the spring and fall, typically in April and October, and were tagged as yy03 and yy09, respectively.

But last year Microsoft altered that schedule. The spring upgrade, 1903 was a feature-and-functionality refresh. But the fall’s 1909 was little more than a rerun of its predecessor, albeit with a small number of additional minor features. (It was so like the long-unused “service pack” concept Microsoft relied on through Windows 7 that older customers immediately labeled it as such.) The two, 1903 and 1909, shared the same code by October, allowing Microsoft to deliver the latter as a standard monthly update, which users who migrated from spring to fall could install much faster than a typical feature upgrade.

Pundits and news outlets, including Computerworld, labeled the 2019 cadence as “major-minor” to describe the volume of change in each and their relative value. Enterprises that deployed 1909 – under Microsoft’s policy, that version provided 30 months of support to Windows 10 Enterprise and Windows 10 Education, a year’s worth more than 1903 – were generally upbeat about the fall upgrade, simply because there was less to it.

Still, Microsoft has so far declined to say how it would deliver Windows 10 upgrades in 2020. Two feature-rich releases? Or one real upgrade and a follow-up that is one in name only?

The company hasn’t yet shown its cards.

Delay Windows 10 2004

Microsoft may have finished 2004, the year’s first Windows 10 feature upgrade, but it’s not announced when it will release it.

But really, what’s the rush?

While the moniker may foretell April as its release (or even May, acknowledging the company’s habit of delivering upgrades a month after the designation), there’s no reason why Microsoft couldn’t delay its delivery to the summer or even later.

Developers have already made moves like this: Google suspended Chrome upgrades last week; Microsoft quickly followed suit, saying it would do the same for its Edge browser. Microsoft also extended support for Windows 10 1709 to Enterprise and Education SKU (stock-keeping units) customers by six months, until Oct. 13.

All these calls were made because of the pandemic’s impact on business, motivated by developers’ own decisions to send workforces home and by the realization that upgrades are superfluous when a crisis is at hand. IT personnel have enough to do to keep the technological lights on and users don’t need the kind of stress a botched upgrade would provoke when there is already a stress surplus generated by the virus.

“If it’s not broken, don’t fix it” never made so much sense.

If Microsoft issues Windows 10 2004 later than its numeric name implies – mid-to-late summer, say, for argument’s sake – the need for another feature-filled upgrade during the remainder of the year falls to zero when next year’s 2103 should land in April.

A service-pack-esque release in the vein of 1909 would do just fine.

Why not just bag 2009 altogether?

If times are so tough that Microsoft shouldn’t go back to its 2017-2018 pattern, why can’t the company just forget about the fall upgrade and be done with it?

Microsoft can, of course. (It’s the one making the rules, and there’s no referee saying different.)

But the fall upgrade serves a crucial purpose under Redmond’s current policies: It’s the version that awards 30 months of support to Windows 10 Enterprise and Windows 10 Education customers. Sans Windows 10 2009, IT admins whose charges are running 1903 or earlier would be between the rock of no upgrade and the hard place of no security patches.

Enterprise/Education customers will not want to adopt a yy03 version because it offers only 18 months of support, far too little (as Microsoft acknowledged when it bent to customer pressure and debuted the 30 months nearly two years ago). But with 2009 out of the picture, the next fall refresh, a putative 2109, won’t be available until around October 2021, probably not reliable enough for businesses until early 2022.

Only Windows 10 1909 has an end-of-support date after that: Its retirement is currently to be May 10, 2022.

Expecting organizations to be able to migrate to a new version in just a few months? That’s a fool’s errand.

Dumping 2009 would put enterprises in a bind, not this year but at the end of the next and the beginning of the year after that (hopefully long after COVID-19 is in the rearview mirror). They would be forced to migrate to one of the spring upgrades and settle for just 18 months of support, knowing that they would have to shortly do it all over again.

By “shortly,” Computerworld means sooner than wanted. Let’s say Microsoft does scratch 2009. An enterprise with PCs running Windows 10 1809 would normally target 2009 as the replacement, aiming to upgrade every two years. But with Windows 10 2009 missing, the firm would have only poor choices, as the following figure shows.

No Windows 2009 IDG/Gregg Keizer

If Microsoft decides to simply not do a fall Windows 10 refresh, enterprises would have to depart from an every-two-year upgrade schedule.

More options for Microsoft

One option would be to accelerate migration to annually and upgrade to Windows 10 1909 starting in the last months of 2020 or the first of 2021. (Windows 10 1809 falls off support in May 2021.) Later, the company could return to the every-two-year tempo by moving from 1909 to 2109 during the opening months of 2022.

Another would be to deploy the delayed 2004 later this year, even though that version comes with only 18 months of support, then get back to a release with 30 months of support, such as 2109. Making that might be tough, though, as 2004’s support would expire just six months into 2109’s lifespan. (If Microsoft doesn’t shove 2004’s release back several months, this move would be impossible.)

A missing fall upgrade, even one in the mold of a feature-free service pack, would clearly ruin the rhythm businesses have set for managing Windows 10. That’s why Microsoft would almost certainly issue something other than 2004 this year.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.



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Microsoft syncs Edge’s release to Chrome’s cadence

Microsoft last week quietly upgraded its Chromium-based Edge to version 80, the first refresh for the browser since it debuted in a stable format three weeks earlier.

The Redmond, Wash. company upgraded Edge to version 80.0.361.48 on Friday, Feb. 7, just three days after Google upgraded Chrome to version 80.

Chrome and Edge each rely on Chromium, the Google-dominated open-source project responsible for creating and maintaining the browsers’ core technologies, including the rendering and JavaScript engines. Chromium set version 80 in stone in early December 2019

Since then, developers at both Google and Microsoft have been working on their versions of Chromium 80, each using a multi-stage cadence of Canary, Dev, Beta and then Stable builds to release progressively more reliable and polished code.

One question that Microsoft has not addressed is how long it would take to get from Chromium to a finished version of Edge, most importantly whether there would be a lag, and if so, how long,between Google launching Chrome and Microsoft releasing Edge. The shorter the lag, the better: Criminals could conceivably exploit a large gap by reverse engineering Chrome’s fixes for that version’s security vulnerabilities, then applying the results to a not-yet-patched Edge.

The first Chrome security update issued after Edge’s Jan. 15 launch was on Jan. 16. Microsoft delivered an update for the same vulnerabilities on Jan. 17. Although the narrow window between the two was encouraging, what was still unknown was the length of the lag between Google promoting a new version of Chrome to the Stable branch and Microsoft following suit.

That lag turned out to be only three days.

On Tuesday, Jan. 4, Google released Chrome 80.0.3987.87, with new features as well as 56 security fixes. Google listed 37 of the 56 with CVE (Common Vulnerabilities & Exposures) identifiers. Ten of the 37 were marked “High,” the second-most-serious ranking in Chrome’s (and Chromium’s) four-step rating system.

In Microsoft’s ongoing Edge security advisory, the firm reported that Edge 80.0.361.48 also included fixes for the same 37 CVEs. (Presumably, Microsoft also patched the 29 bugs for which Google did not list CVEs.)

What Microsoft has yet to do is describe what non-security changes were made to Edge between versions 79 and 80. (To be fair, Google has not done the same for Chrome 80, in part because it tends to tout new features and functionality when they reach the browser’s Beta build.)

A commentary on the support page titled “Release notes for Microsoft Edge Security Updates,” for example, was laughably short, and in the advisory Microsoft took to linking to Google’s notes for Chrome 80.

Some ideas about changes made in Edge 80 can be gleaned by searching the browser’s group policies’ documentation using the string “since version 80.” Doing so signaled that Edge 80 will likely began to enforce the SameSite cookie control standard around the same time as does Chrome, and that it will also tackle mixed content, notably blocking downloads of files over non-encrypted connections, as Chrome is to do in March.

The near-to-Chrome release of Edge 80 also means that users of the latter should expect upgrades on the same rhythm as Chrome users do their browser, and close to the same dates.

The next several versions of Chrome are scheduled to release on these dates. Microsoft should upgrade Edge with days of them.

Chrome 81: March 17

Chrome 82: April 28

Chrome 83: June 9

Chrome 84: Aug. 4

Chrome 85: Sept. 15

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.



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