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March 30, 2020

Windows Insider Program Changes: What’s Up?

With the release of Build 19356 to Windows Insiders on Monday, December 16, the Insider Team did a lot more than simply let go of another Insider Preview. They’re also completely changing the game that Insiders now play going forward. It used to be that MS broke the Windows 10 Insider code base into silos for registered Windows Insiders — like Kari and myself and many of you reading this — to download, install and use. You’d grab a version of 20H1, or the Insider Preview for 19H2, or perhaps even something loosely (or optimistically) understood as 20H2, and be off and running. Guess what? That’s not how it works any more. Here’s the key description of how things work from now on, straight from the 19536 Announcement:

The active development branch (called “RS_PRERELEASE”) is where the teams check in all their latest code changes into the OS. Moving forward, the Fast ring will receive builds directly from this active development branch and new features will show up in these builds first. While features in the active development branch may be slated for a future Windows 10 release, they are no longer matched to a specific Windows 10 release. This means that builds from the active development branch simply reflect the latest work in progress code from our engineers. New features and OS improvements done in this branch during these development cycles will show up in future Windows 10 releases when they are ready. And we may deliver these new features and OS improvements as full OS build updates or servicing releases.

What’s Up? An AWFUL LOT!

Readers: ponder with me, if you will, what this all means. If I understand this correctly, it means no more Fast Ring or Slow Ring (see note at end of story for explanation of this strikeout). It means no more correlation between specific builds and planned future releases such as 20H2 or 21H1. It means that MS can move “features in the active development phase” around its planning slate as they see fit. That’s because “they are no longer matched to a specific Windows 10 release.” And such features may or may not actually ever appear, and should only appear (if they do) “when they are ready.” And finally, we don’t even new if they’ll require a “full OS build update” (which I’m guessing is tantamount to a Feature Upgrade) or a “servicing release” (which could be either a Cumulate Update or just a “regular” update). That’s a lot to chew on.

Paul Thurrott’s comment on this new regime is also worth chewing over (as is his whole response to this announcement)

What this suggests is that we’ll be publicly testing features from at least the next two versions of Windows 10, and that there’s no real way to know whether specific features will make it into the very next version. This is a problem for anyone who supports Windows, obviously, not just book authors like me but also those in enterprise IT. But you know. Microsoft.

Mea culpa, Paul. I’ve worked on lots of what the publishing industry calls “day and date” books on Windows, which are supposed to make their way through the publication process so as to (a) hit the market the same day the Windows OS release goes public and (b) match the contents of that release completely and correctly. What Paul is saying here is that this just got a whole lot trickier, because MS has just declared it’s “anybody’s guess” as to what will show up when new releases come out, and it’s also not clear what form they’ll take (which matters from the standpoint of documenting installation and post-install clean-up). Big sigh.

As a quick read-through of NeoWin.net’s story on the announcement shows, this restructuring of the Windows Insider program has just made things a lot more convenient for Microsoft. Here’s the way they put it:

Microsoft also doesn’t want to tie features to specific releases. The company has run into trouble with this in the past, promising things and then not delivering on time. Now, we’ll be testing features in the Fast ring, and Microsoft will decide at some point if it wants to include them in the builds that are spun off into the Slow ring.

There’s a scene in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland where a bunch of characters play croquet using flamingos as the mallets, and hedgehogs as the balls. Consequently, the game is wild and crazy because the game’s instruments keep moving around and acting of their own accord. I like to call crazy-dynamic systems “hedgehogs and flamingos” as a shorthand for this kind of behavior. IMHO, that’s what the Windows Insider program has become. Any else — besides me — up for such a game of croquet? Let’s play!

[Note: The illustration at the head of this story is from the original manuscript pages for Alice in Wonderland, courtesy of a wonderful 2005 post to the BibliOdyssey blog on Blogspot. Because the scan is of material from 1863, I’m pretty sure it’s no longer subject to copyright. But, as always, I like to attribute and, where possible, commend and recommend my sources. That’s what I’m doing here.]

[Note added December 20: Kari and others have corrected my misunderstanding that Fast and Slow ring are no more. Indeed the Fast and Slow rings do persist independently: the Fast ring is intended for testing new things that may or not ever make it into the permanent Windows 10 code base. The Slow ring is for testing code that is intended to be released to the general public, and will be in Slow ring testers’ hands for some time (2 or 3 months, at least) prior to public release. I apologize for my misapprehension. Thanks to all those who helped set me straight.]

Author: Ed Tittel

Ed Tittel is a 30-plus-year computer industry veteran. He’s a Princeton and multiple University of Texas graduate who’s worked in IT since 1981 when he started his first programming job. Over the past three decades he’s also worked as a manager, technical evangelist, consultant, trainer, and an expert witness. See his professional bio for all the details.

2 Responses “Windows Insider Program Changes: What’s Up?”

  1. Keith Donald
    December 18, 2019 at 23:25

    I suspect you are going to have to monitor the Slow ring to find out what is in the next release. Fast has become more like what Skippy was.

  2. December 20, 2019 at 17:00

    Yes, thanks Keith. Kari also pointed out to me that the Slow ring has an important role to play in preparing release candidate code for actual, public release. I’ve struck out (but left in) my original error, and have added an explanatory note to the end of the story. Thanks again for the feedback.

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