Is Microsoft making Windows worse to make it better?

Windows 10 is being presented as an OS in continuous development. We're used to cloud services being a work in progress, but how well does that transfer to an operating system?

Is Microsoft making Windows worse to make it better?
MIcrosoft

Windows 10 isn't just a new operating system; it's also a new way of delivering an operating system. In theory, Windows as a Service (as Microsoft calls it) promises a continuous stream of new features alongside the familiar security updates, instead of saving up new features for three years and then trying to persuade users those features are worth the cost of an upgrade. (And no, Windows as a Service is not a paid subscription service, unless you're a business paying for upgrade rights with Software Assurance.)

"This is increasingly the way the industry is heading," says Gabriel Aul, corporate vice president for the Engineering Systems team in the Windows and Devices group at Microsoft. "It's by no means isolated to technology companies. For example, you even see automotive companies like Tesla using a services model to provide new benefits to customers. We saw it as a natural evolution for Windows."

Microsoft has been using the services model for years with its regular security updates, Aul says, and Windows 10 lets the company take it to a new level. "We really do believe Windows 10 is the best Windows ever, and embracing a services model lets us keep making the experience even better with additional productivity, safety and entertainment value offered over time," he says.

That's the theory. But even before Windows 10 shipped, there was considerable pushback against the new Windows as a Service model -- and especially against using different branches to deliver updates at different speeds, such as Current Branch (CB) for consumers, who will get update downloads as soon as they occur without the option to postpone them, and Current Branch for Business (CBB) for businesses that want to delay updates (but still without the option to postpone them indefinitely).

However, while a great deal of attention has been given to concerns that Microsoft's new service policy gives you "updates whether you want them or not," there's been much less discussion of other implications of this approach: What this means when it comes to features that have been delayed or even downgraded (sometimes temporarily, sometimes not) before they get updated.

In the process of Microsoft redesigning the operating system, some features have gone away (sometimes temporarily). For example, the new Edge Web browser has fewer capabilities than Internet Explorer users have known for years. And new features in Windows 10 weren't all ready on day one; instead, they'll keep arriving over the coming months. For most users, the new fall update will be the first installment.

This is a new approach for operating systems, but it's something that's been "business as usual" for years from cloud services such as Gmail, as well as for mobile apps. Until it sought to appeal to businesses with Google Apps, Google services were notorious for staying in beta as the company continued to develop them, and Microsoft Office 365 has added features regularly. "Doing this at the operating system level is definitely harder than for a cloud-based service," Aul admits, "but we think the model makes sense and we're committed to making it a smooth and low-friction process for customers."

Even so, it's not clear how willing business users are to make that transition.

"The faster feature delivery and update schedule that comes with Windows as a Service is both promising and troublesome to IT pros," Spiceworks IT analyst Peter Tasi points out. Spiceworks offers free inventory management and help desk tools, and an online support community for IT administrators.

"While new functionality and quicker patch delivery are great, they can also cause IT headaches. Companies want to ensure that hardware and critical applications they need to support are fully compatible with their operating system," Tasi says.

"IT admins need control, and some IT pros have complained about having no way to restrict or remove certain features, which can be a big problem in compliance environments," Tasi continues. "At the same time, some are in favor of more frequent Windows updates and the faster rate of OS improvements. In fact, some IT pros have expressed their amazement that a major release will be ready just three months after launch."

Stepping back or starting small?

In some cases, making the Windows experience "even better" has first meant taking a step back and even removing features. Or, as Aul phrases it, "We believe this approach will allow us to deliver better features on a sustained cadence, but some things will start small and grow as we add capability to them."

With both Windows Mobile (previously Windows Phone) and the Edge browser, that step back was inevitable, because Microsoft started from scratch.

It meant previews of the mobile version of Windows 10 began by being far behind what Microsoft was already shipping with Windows Phone 8.1. Early previews lacked features such as the ability to open Office documents or to mark photos as favorites -- and even now the new Mail and Calendar apps don't offer significantly more functionality than the Windows Phone equivalents. In addition, the Windows Store no longer allows users to send apps to their phone from their PC; they have to load the apps directly from the Store on their phone.

That "step back to move forward" process may not always be comfortable, but the belief at Microsoft apparently is that the sacrifices will be worthwhile once the OS reaches the "moving forward" stage. For example, shifting to a common OS has allowed Windows phones to get the Edge browser and the same universal apps as Windows 10.

In particular, Microsoft seems to be hoping that it will reach the single, unified messaging system it's been working toward for both PCs and phones. Over the last few years, Microsoft dropped Windows Messenger; it also integrated and then removed Facebook messaging (after Facebook removed the APIs to support that). With Windows 10, Microsoft can integrate Skype messages with SMS and Skype calling with the Phone dialer; and with Cortana on both phones and PCs, users will see missed calls and be able to send text messages from their PCs. The first rudimentary pieces of this arrive in the fall update.

Aul paints the development of Edge as a shift to implementing more Web standards. "Consumers want a browser that takes full advantage of the modern Web and new features in Windows 10, but Internet Explorer still plays an important role for some enterprise customers who require a legacy browser. With Windows 10, we're delivering experiences for the modern Web and new apps, while still helping existing customers who may need more time to transition."

However, although Edge supports the latest HTML standards, it has fewer features as a browser than Internet Explorer, Chrome or Firefox. It's only in the fall update that Edge added the abilities to sync Favorites, to upload files by dragging them into a browser window, to download files to a specific folder and to stream video from the browser to other devices -- features IE has had since Windows 7. The update added a thumbnail preview for tabs, but that only works inside the browser; the taskbar preview still works only for the active tab, so you can't close individual tabs from the taskbar thumbnail as you can in IE. You can't pin specific sites to the taskbar either, and you can only re-open the most recently closed tab without digging into your history.

The promised extension support (which replaces the IE model of plugins for everything except Flash) that was expected this fall is now delayed until 2016; according to Microsoft, it's still "actively working to develop a secure extension model." And even though Windows Mobile will bring the Edge browser to phones, they won't get extensions as quickly as the Windows 10 browser (something that would have actually put Windows phones ahead of Android).

The need to stay on schedule

Microsoft does have to stay on schedule for this and other features, warns Steve Kleynhans, Gartner's vice president of mobile and client computing. "If things slip much more than that, it will start to impact testing for a broader range of enterprises, and that could have an impact on timing for deployments," he says. "Some of the more complex security functionality (which hasn't been delivered yet) will take a lot of time for companies to understand and integrate into their environments. If it slips out too far, companies may just implement Windows 10 without it, and that would dull Microsoft's value message for enterprises."

Another issue is accessibility. Although Edge will finally support the UI Automation API (first introduced in Windows Vista) in order to offer far better accessibility features than IE -- and to make those work everywhere from Cortana to universal apps -- it currently only offers those accessibility options through the Windows 10 Narrator.

So when the Microsoft Edge team says, "We recognize Microsoft Edge isn't where it needs to be to provide a fully accessible browsing experience," it's tempting to apply that statement to the browser a little more broadly.

The result? "Many organizations are continuing with Internet Explorer as the default browser on Windows 10 for accessing enterprise applications, at least in the short term," says Maureen Polte of software management provider Flexera Software. One reason is the need for support of ActiveX controls used by many business apps.

"One other benefit is that Internet Explorer provides a standard platform that can be used across Windows 7, Windows 8.x and Windows 10, while Edge is exclusive to Windows 10," says Polte. "At this time, Edge is largely being used as a secondary browser for personal Web browsing, similar to Chrome and Firefox."

Troubles for OneDrive

Another area where Windows 10 has taken a step forward and a step back is OneDrive. The OneDrive for Business client has (finally!) advanced from the clunky SharePoint and Groove technology, and it syncs as reliably as the popular OneDrive consumer service.

But the consumer version of OneDrive in Windows 10 lost the sophisticated placeholder feature from Windows 8.1 which let users work with files through Explorer, whether or not they were locally synced -- because according to Microsoft that feature confused some users and caused storage problems on small Windows tablets. Users can still pick which folders they want to sync, but doing so requires they use a separate dialog rather than choose directly from Explorer.

Sharing OneDrive files directly from Explorer has also taken a step forward (the Explorer option no longer takes you to the OneDrive site to get the link) and backwards (the feature moves from the Ribbon to the context menu and shares a link that allows editing by default, not just viewing).

(It hasn't helped that Microsoft recently announced that Office 365 users will no longer have unlimited OneDrive cloud storage and fees for OneDrive would be revamped.)

This kind of change is frustrating for power users, although Gartner's Kleynhans suggests that impact of feature regressions and delivery delays is minimal for most enterprise customers. "The regressions are features from Windows 8 or 8.1, not Windows 7; and since very few enterprises ever deployed Windows 8 or 8.1 they aren't even aware of what is being dropped. Losing something like OneDrive placeholders really isn't a loss since they never experienced it in the first place," he says.

Is Microsoft listening to user views on functionality when it makes these changes? As you'd expect, Aul says yes. "Our metric for success is delivering a product that people use and love," he says. "We have a team of data scientists who rigorously pore over data and feedback from Insiders, and customers to understand the features or changes they want to see in the product, and to help the engineering team build out roadmaps for product development."

It's a little harder to see from the outside what the feedback looks like, because the Windows Feedback app is now the only official way to report bugs and request features. Although Microsoft is keeping its more public UserVoice sites for developer features, including the rendering engine in Edge, it's closing down the UserVoice sites for Windows 10.

And users may not always feel that Microsoft is listening. For example, when Microsoft announced last January that it was removing the "placeholders" that allowed OneDrive users to access all their files using a minimum of local drive space, Chris Jones, who was then corporate vice present for OneDrive and SharePoint, stated, "other [important capabilities] will come in updates that follow later in the calendar year - most notably the core capabilities of placeholders that are both reliable and comprehensible." But there has been no follow-up. More recently, reductions in OneDrive storage allowances precipitated a petition drive.

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