Windows 10 fragmentation? What fragmentation?

There will be different branches and builds, but it will still be better than today's situation with multiple OS versions being used, most analysts agree.

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How different the forks will be is unknown -- Microsoft may not know itself at this point -- but the fragmentation could be of concern to developers and support teams, with each group unsure how many Windows 10 users are on a specific branch and even ring at any given moment, and thus hesitant about supporting a moving target, or uncertain about questions or problems that may pertain only to one ring or branch, but not later releases.

Historically, Windows has had both the reality and the appearance of similar forks, what with the various editions -- Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8.1 -- and subsets within those editions, like Windows 7 Service Pack 1 (SP1) and Windows 8.1 Update. But with the exception of Windows 8 versus Windows 8.1, internally the differences have been on a patch and bug-fix level, not on a feature, UI or even API (application programming interface) level, as Windows 10 promises.

But analysts downplayed any problem that the plethora of Windows 10 releases may present.

"There are likely to be at least six" rings, said Chen. "A fast and a slow for each of Insider, CB, and CBB. But I don't believe this will cause fragmentation in Windows beyond what exists today. With the classic Windows releases, you could still have people on different versions, such as service packs or point releases like 8/8.1.

"There's really only four rings that matter, CB and CBB, and a business may only be concerned about CBB, so that's effectively two rings to manage, not a big change from what they support today," Chen added.

Frank Gillett of Forrester Research agreed. "It won't be nearly as bad as a decades-long trail of multiple Windows versions or the crazy variety of Android forks in the world," he said.

No Android problems, most foresee

Android has been the poster child of fragmentation, not because of its release tempo -- Google issues major new editions annually, on the same pace as Apple does iOS -- but because carriers update existing handsets very slowly or not at all. Android versions 4.1 through 4.3, aka "Jelly Bean," which were released between July 2012 and July 2013, currently account for 38 percent of all editions, while October 2013's Android 4.4 (KitKat) powers 39 percent, and the newest, November 2014's Android 5.0 and March 2015's 5.1 (Lollipop), have a combined 12 percent share.

(On the other hand, September 2014's iOS 8 powers 84 percent of all of Apple's mobile devices, with just 14 percent running 2013's iOS 7.)

"This will not happen to Windows. Android fragmentation is a very different problem," said Chen. "There you have OEMs customizing and developing Android that they get from Google upstream for their devices, and they control the development and release downstream. Windows on PC does not follow the mobile model. Every Windows machine gets largely the same Windows direct from Microsoft, any OEM customizations are only on the surface, and all the updates are controlled by Microsoft."

The amount of time that a specific build will be active was also important to the analysts' argument that Windows 10 would not be as fragmented as Android, or for that matter, Windows as it is today.

"Fragmentation should be limited to 18 months or so, with the exception of LTSB, certainly not reaching back several years as it often does today," said Gartner's Kleynhans.

But not everyone was sanguine about the multiple branches, rings and builds. Miller of Directions on Microsoft has qualms.

"Consumer developers will probably be able to play the 'we don't worry about Windows Insider builds' card, and focus primarily on CB and CBB builds," Miller said. But "how IT organizations and developers will test and ensure their own quality across a range of OS releases like this has been one of my key concerns since I first caught wind of Microsoft's plans."

Kleynhans also had misgivings, although his were about the mechanics of the process.

"How will [Microsoft] identify each update?" Kleynhans asked. "We know that the OS will be called Windows 10 regardless of what updates have been delivered and installed. But as for identifying the state after each update, we don't know if Microsoft will stick with the build number, opt for a simplified numbering scheme, go back to point identifiers -- Window 10 v 10.1, 10.2 ... similar to what Apple does with OS X -- or maybe use something more date oriented, like Windows 10, July 2016. There will have to be something to help developers understand what they are facing in the field."

This story, "Windows 10 fragmentation? What fragmentation?" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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