Redmondology: Parsing clues about Windows 10's next update release date

Prior practice hints at Threshold 2 ship date after Nov. 12

When will Microsoft release the first major update to Windows 10?

No one really knows except the people at the company's headquarters in Redmond, Wash. Fortunately for outsiders, even the short stretch of Windows 10's life so far offers clues about Microsoft's process.

First, a bit of backstory.

Microsoft has purposefully been vague in describing the intervals between releases to the "Current Branch" (CB), one of four update-and-release tracks and the one all consumers and many small businesses will live on. That's no surprise: Under a "service" rather than "software" model -- and Microsoft has been firm in the "Windows as a service" description of 10 -- timing is supposed to depend much more on the quality of a release than what it actually contains, and strictly speaking, should not be pinned to a hard-and-fast deadline. Again, the quality of the update should supersede the calendar.

But Microsoft has talked of Windows 10's update cadence, if only because the new scheme is a massive change from decades of prior custom, and it still needs to provide users, particularly those in enterprises, with some structure.

Until recently, Microsoft talked up a three-times-a-year update tempo, with new features and functionality, user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) changes, on the table every four months. Lately, though, Microsoft has gotten a bit squishier about that frequency. In a detailed explanation of Windows 10's servicing, Microsoft said it "expects to publish an average of two to three new feature upgrades per year.") [Emphasis added.]

Under the three-times-annual plan, Microsoft should ship the first update to the Current Branch around late November, four months after Windows 10's July 29 RTM, or "release to manufacturing." November has also been the month pegged by several long-time Microsoft hands, including ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley, and on Wednesday, Paul Thurrott, although none have circled a specific date.

But when next month?

Post Patch Tuesday

One clue suggests a date after Nov. 12, the month's Patch Tuesday release of Microsoft's security fixes.

In both September and October, Microsoft apparently packaged that month's Patch Tuesday security fixes within a new build for users on the Insider "fast" track. Insider is the preview program that lets people install early versions of Windows 10. In Microsoft's lexicon, a "ring" is a subset of an update track.

On multiple Computerworld PCs running Insider and assigned to the fast ring, builds were received and installed but no visible downloads were done of the last two months' worth of the cumulative updates, which included the security patches received by customers running Windows 10 RTM.

In September, Windows 10 Insider did not receive the Sept. 8 cumulative update, but was later upgraded to build 10547 on Sept. 18. Meanwhile, in October, Microsoft upgraded Insider to build 10565 on Oct. 12, a day before the Oct. 13 cumulative update that RTM users got as the Windows 10 part of Patch Tuesday. Build 10565 has not received any updates other than the usual malware signatures for Windows Defender since, indicating that October's Patch Tuesday was tucked inside.

At least that's the assumption: Microsoft did not respond to questions about builds 10547 (September) and 10565 (October) and whether they contained the contents of the corresponding month's Patch Tuesday updates.

It's unclear why Microsoft is doing it this way -- rather than delivering the month's Patch Tuesday contents as a separate cumulative update -- but the important point is that it not only continues to do so, but also stuck to the practice in July, when it issued the RTM code as build 10240 to Insiders on July 15, a day after that month's Patch Tuesday.

If it reuses that pattern, it won't offer an RTM-quality build of the first update until after Nov. 12.

Fast-.iso-slow

Another tidbit pulled from Microsoft's pattern so far also indicates that the first major update -- which has been dubbed "Threshold 2," with Microsoft using the abbreviation "TH2" in its build labeling -- is not imminent.

Last week, Microsoft shipped build 10565 to the fast ring (Oct. 12), offered the same build as disk images in .iso format (Oct. 15), and then delivered it to those on the Insider slow ring (Oct. 16).

The last time it did a three-step release was over a several-day stretch in late May and early June, about two months before Windows 10 launched.

While the prior two-month gap between the events is unlikely to be repeated for Threshold 2 -- it would mean the update wouldn't appear until mid-December -- the fast ring-.iso release-slow ring cadence can be interpreted as a precursor to RTM, and not an immediate one.

Simultaneous fast and slow

In July, Microsoft released build 10240 -- the RTM code -- to all Insiders, those on both the fast and slow rings, on the same day, July 15, as a final quality check, particularly of the release process, before tossing it into the deep end of the Windows mass market.

Again, the interval between that event and release -- in July it was 14 days -- means less than the fact that the simultaneous fast-slow rings update preceded the official launch.

Microsoft has yet to identify a build and ship it to both the fast and slow rings on the same day, signaling that the latest build, 10565, is not the RTM candidate.

Splash date

Microsoft is in uncharted territory with Windows 10 on a whole host of levels, including how it introduces the several-times-a-year updates to Window 10. Does it do a splashy event? Does it just roll out the update sans fanfare?

If Microsoft has decided to do something more along the lines of splash, it has an upcoming event where it could debut Threshold 2: Its Microsoft Connect developer affair on Nov. 18-19.

The conference will be virtual rather than in-person, meaning that the keynotes and sessions will be exclusively webcast rather than taking place in a hall before a live audience, or in meeting rooms with you-are-there participants.

But in the end, it's all guesswork

With so few data points -- Microsoft has never done this before, and the pattern established with the July 29 RTM may have been a one-off -- deciphering clues like this has more than a whiff of speculation.

It's all guesswork in the face of Microsoft's zipped lips.

Today, in fact, another Microsoft watcher, Tom Warren of The Verge, citing unnamed sources, asserted that Threshold 2 would be distributed early next month, "likely during the first week of next month." That would be in less than two weeks, or sometime during the stretch of Nov. 2-6.

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