Windows 10: It's complicated

Think fast: How many versions of Windows 10 are there now, how often do they get updated and how long will Microsoft support them? You almost need a spreadsheet to keep track — and that's a problem.

hand at keyboard with Windows logo
Thinkstock/Microsoft

It was a far, far simpler time. There was just the one iPad. Iron Man was only up to 2. And Windows 7 scratched its way onto about a quarter of all Windows PCs.

The year: 2010.

Somewhere in the intervening years, things got complicated. Now iPads come in five sizes. Marvel's universe has more characters than a Tolstoy novel and Iron Man is a Lego. And Windows 10, the true successor to Windows 7 (Windows 8? Please), is confusing.

Compared to the starkness of Windows 7 and its single service pack, Windows 10 is a Hydra untamed even by Heracles. Cut off one upgrade and another appears.

Count the ways.

So many upgrades

The most obvious complication Microsoft introduced with Windows 10 was a radical schedule that accelerated the pace of releases. Prior to Windows 10, Microsoft upgraded the OS approximately every three years. There were exceptions — the span between Windows XP (2001) and its successor Windows Vista (2006) was five years — but the timeline was stable for the most part.

Instead, initially Windows 10 was to be revised every four months. That pace, however, was untenable and quickly slowed to twice a year. And while two-times-a-year remains the official cadence, the reduction of the fall upgrade to a minor uptick effectively slows the tempo to once annually.

That such a torrid pace was unsustainable — and in fact an error on Microsoft's part — was apparent to some customers almost immediately. Microsoft, while continuing to defend the rapid release concept, has come to agree with its commercial customers, if not overtly, then by the actions it has taken to slow the cadence by 200% in just four years.

So many versions

Microsoft's profligate expansion of Windows into numerous editions, and then those editions into multiple versions, has never been a secret. Microsoft has not appreciably increased the number of the former with Windows 10 — the core remains Home, Pro and Enterprise — but the addition of variations such as Windows 10 S and Windows 10 X may forecast that the company has thrown caution to the wind and will create and permanently maintain a greater variety.

More noisome is the expansion in versions. Where Windows 7 had only two — the original and then Windows 7 Service Pack 1 (SP1) — Windows 10 is already at nine if the impending 1909 is included. (For those counting at home, it's 1507, 1511, 1607, 1703, 1709, 1803, 1809, 1903 and 1909.)

The problem for customers is keeping track of what they have where, and for Microsoft — because it must pay a penalty, too — is in supporting these versions. In Windows 7, for example, Microsoft never had more than two to support — the original and SP1 — and the overlap was just over 25 months. Meanwhile, Microsoft must support more versions of Windows 10: Assuming next year's spring upgrade releases after April 14, 2020, it will soon be simultaneously supporting five versions, from 1709 through 1909.

So many updates

Once upon a time, Microsoft issued updates either once a month — on the second Tuesday of each — or whenever a vulnerability posed such a danger to users that the Redmond, Wash. company's engineers released an emergency patch.

Now, Microsoft has an alphabetic labeling system for its monthly updates, classifying them as B or C or D to mark which week they appear (second, third and fourth of the month, respectively).

For IT administrators managing machines, the updates are like constant background feedback noise, where decibel levels rise and fall depending on the severity of the bugs or the breakage updates cause. But they never fall silent.

So many support timelines

Before Windows 10, Microsoft had a long-standing support policy that anyone could understand: 10 years. In most cases — there are always exceptions with technology support in general, Microsoft in particular — software was supported with fixes, most importantly security fixes, for a decade. The 10 years was traditionally broken into two phases, each of five years, called "Mainstream" and "Extended," but where it mattered — those security fixes — it was all the same.

Ten years of patches.

Windows 10 threw that right out the, well, window. Microsoft couldn't really do anything but that once it decided on upgrading multiple times a year. And one got the impression that the company was simply tired of supporting a product for such a stretch.

Initially, each of the two- or three-times-a-year Windows 10 feature upgrades were to be supported for just 12 months, but that was quickly upped to 18. That wasn't a decade — it was, in fact, less than one-seventh of a decade — but it was consistent, which is important to businesses. However, in September 2018, Microsoft bowed to commercial customers' complaints and raised support to 30 months, but only for Windows 10 Enterprise and its school- and college-oriented Windows 10 Education.

It was no coincidence that the longer support was offered only to the highest-priced Windows SKUs (stock-keeping units.) The 30-month support lifecycle becomes a key benefit of those editions and the Microsoft 365 subscription plans that bundle Enterprise with Office 365 and management tools. Windows 10 Pro was declared a "dead end" by industry analysts at Gartner, in part because of its support limit of 18 months.

Microsoft even makes the support extension confusing, as the 30 months only applies to the feature upgrades released in the fall, those marked yy09. Windows 10 Enterprise's and Windows 10 Education's spring upgrades — tagged yy03 — retain the 18 months of lesser SKUs.

On top of all this, Microsoft did keep the 10-year support practice for what it first named "Long-term Support Branch" (LTSB) but later changed to Long-term Support Channel" (LTSC). In a seeming sop to corporate customers who were hostile to change, Microsoft offered the option as a specialized edition of Windows 10 Enterprise. LTSB/LTSC was to have a schedule very similar to the slower cadence familiar to IT: Upgrades that appeared every three years or so, with little or no feature changes in between, and an update model that provided only security fixes.

So far, three LTSB/LTSC versions have been issued: 2015, 2016 and 2019, with end-of-support dates of October 2025, October 2026 and January 2029, respectively.

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