Microsoft to stop providing Windows 10 'ready for business' guidance

Without info about whether the latest version of Windows can be considered a 'Semi-Annual Channel' release, companies won't know how stable and reliable that version is. The move has angered users.

hand at keyboard with Windows logo
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Microsoft plans to soon streamline its Windows 10 servicing jargon by eliminating a term that describes the first release phase of each feature upgrade.

Critics say the change will leave commercial customers unsure about where the upgrade stands on stability and reliability.

"Businesses saw the declaration of CBB/SAC as the point in time whereby Microsoft, and this was in their own words, [said] it was 'ready for business,'" asserted Susan Bradley. "Now we have to start over with our own timeline." Bradley, a computer network and security consultant, moderates the PatchMangement.org mailing list and writes for AskWoody.com, the Windows tip site run by Woody Leonard, a Computerworld blogger.

In a post to a company blog, John Wilcox - a Windows-as-a-Service (WaaS) evangelist for Microsoft - laid out the terminology change. "Beginning with Windows 10, version 1903 (the next feature update for Windows 10), the Windows 10 release information page will no longer list SAC-T information for version 1903 and future feature updates," Wilcox wrote.

One would think that dropping one term would be of little importance to Windows users. One would be wrong.

"This is horrible and an ongoing insult to your customers," raged one commenter, identified as Michael Smith, in a message appended to Wilcox's post.

Microsoft's twisted road to Windows 10 nomenclature

There have been few straight lines in Windows 10's history. Microsoft has altered everything from the length of support to the number of updates issued annually in the three-plus years of the OS. Nor has terminology been immune to change.

When Windows 10 launched in 2015, Microsoft split each feature upgrade's release into two channels - called "branches" by the company - labeled "Current Branch," or CB, and "Current Branch for Business," aka CBB. While the code was virtually the same - the only differences were fixes Microsoft made between the debut of CB and the first availability of CBB several months later - the channels formalized the two-tier customer classification that was integral to Microsoft's strategy.

The lower tier included those who use Windows 10 Home, the upper tier, all others. At the bottom were Windows 10 Home users - predominantly consumers - who were forced to accept every feature upgrade at the introduction of a CB and were not allowed to delay the installation of those upgrades.

Meanwhile, customers running Windows 10 Pro and Windows 10 Enterprise could defer upgrades (although not permanently). They would receive each feature upgrade only as it reached its CBB milestone, weeks or months after the associated CB's appearance, when Microsoft announced that the refresh was suitable for business deployment.

The pinnacle of CB-CBB relevance was when Microsoft launched Windows Update for Business (WUfB), an offshoot of the venerable Windows Update. WUfB keyed on CBB's release and made it easier for firms not running management platforms such as WSUS (Windows Server Update Services) to defer the deployment of a feature upgrade.

The point? Microsoft made consumers an essential part of the Windows 10 testing regime. Along with participants in the Insider program - another Windows 10 innovation that delivered a never-ending series of previews to self-selected participants - consumers were implicitly tasked with identifying bugs so Microsoft could quash those bugs before they reached the Redmond, Wash. company's most important customers, corporations.

In May 2017, Microsoft replaced the CB-CBB labels with "Semi-Annual Channel (Pilot)" and "Semi-Annual Channel (Broad)," respectively. The reason: To sync with the naming conventions, more or less, then used by Office 365. "That's quite a mouthful," Michael Cherry, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, said at the time of the new names.

It wasn't long before those names were again changed to "Semi-Annual Channel (Targeted)" or SAC-T, and "Semi-Annual Channel" or SAC. SAC-T was the new name for what had been CB, while SAC was the moniker for what had been dubbed CBB.

Through its search for the perfect term, Microsoft kept providing the declarations commercial customers demanded, that at Point X, a feature upgrade was, as Bradley quoted Microsoft, "business ready." It did that by transitioning an upgrade from CB to CBB, or "Semi-Annual Channel (Pilot)" to "Semi-Annual Channel (Broad)" or SAC-T to SAC. It also used other means of communication, including blog posts and support documents, to make the same safe-to-deploy announcements.

The most recent announcement via blog was in June 2018, when Windows 10 April 2018 Update, aka 1803 in Microsoft's four-digit yymm format, was "fully available." That phrase, though more obtuse, clearly meant the same as the previous "ready for business," because the company contended it was "the final phase of our rollout process."

Say goodbye to SAC-T; say farewell to 'ready for business'

With last week's announcement, Microsoft eliminated SAC-T from its lexicon, or will with the release of Windows 10 April 2019 Update, or 1903, which if past is prologue should start rolling out in early-to-mid April.

In May 2018, Microsoft warned users this would happen. "There is work underway to ... have [feature upgrade] deferrals based on just one offset date," Wilcox wrote May 31. "Once that happens, the SAC-T entry on the release information page will go away and you will just see two entries per year."

The vanishing of SAC-T wasn't what irked critics. It was the loss of a stability and reliability milestone.

According to Bradley, the transition from SAC-T to SAC was "a point in time that Microsoft had enough telemetry and evidence that most of the bugs were ironed out. Or at least that's been the impression given to us."

Now that's gone. And that's a problem.

"Windows 10 is not ready for business on the first day it's released to Windows Update," Bradley argued. "As Microsoft watches telemetry and dribbles it out, reacting to issues, putting in blocking notifications, even they acknowledge in a roundabout way that it's not ready for business."

Case in point: Windows 10 October 2018 Update, aka 1809.

The biggest debacle thus far in Windows 10's release history, 1809 began distribution but was quickly yanked amid growing reports from users of data loss. Two months later, 1809's launch was officially restarted. Even now, three months after resuming 1809's distribution, Microsoft has yet to confirm the upgrade should be widely deployed by enterprises. By the company's own admission, blocking issues remain unsolved.

Microsoft has long promoted the idea that there was no need to wait to begin deployment. The very term SAC-T, where "T" stood for "Targeted," was emblematic of that thinking. In May 2018, Wilcox urged enterprises to jump on a feature upgrade as soon as it was available. (And he was far from the first.) "Start targeted deployments within your organization as soon as a release is available, deploying to an initial servicing ring, or rings, for validation," Wilcox advised (emphasis added). "Target specific devices until you feel confident to make the decision to deploy broadly, at which time you will then update all of the devices in your organization."

Customers looked to Microsoft for guidance on when they should "feel confident to make the decision to deploy broadly." With the demise of SAC-T, they will lose a cue to that moment. Nor does Microsoft plan to provide the ready-for-business announcements it has offered in the past.

"Enterprises should determine their deferral based on the SAC date," Microsoft said when Computerworld asked whether the firm would be making such declarations for Windows 10 1903 and beyond. In other words, the when-to-deploy onus is now entirely on the customer.

It's easy, then, to see the decision to delete SAC-T and halt guidance as simply new ways for Microsoft to make the same case that Windows 10 is thoroughly tested and can safely be rolled out as quickly as possible.

So, what's a Windows shop to do?

As with so many of Microsoft's decisions related to Windows 10, there are few options for customers.

For those able to defer Windows 10's feature upgrades, Microsoft suggested adding time to the deployment delay mechanism. For Windows 10 1903, Microsoft will automatically add 60 days to customer deferrals in WUfB as a one-time alternative to its ready-for-business input.

Sixty days is a much shorter span than the average time it took Microsoft to declare feature upgrades business worthy - that average was 101 days through 1803 - and just two weeks longer than the fastest-ever-to-that-milestone (which was, again, 1803).

"You would change the deferral value from 30 to 90 days," Wilcox said, to add 60 more days of delay to upgrades 1909 and later.

Bradley had a different idea for gleaning whatever is-it-ready? crumbs Microsoft leaves behind. "The point in time that it's truly ready for business now is when Microsoft states somewhere (hopefully here) that all blocking is off, all throttling is off, and every machine on [Windows Update] without a deferral in place should be offered it up."

As Bradley pointed out, Windows 10 1809 hadn't yet reached that state, even now. "We're still not at that point for 1809," she said. "And we're gearing up for 1903."

All of which makes Microsoft's timing curious. Why ditch guidance about feature upgrades' reliability and stability when the 1809 shambles remains sharp in customers' memories?

Microsoft isn't saying. But some users weren't so shy about bringing up 1809. "You are unable to release a single stable feature release of Windows 10," said commenter Michael Smith in a j'accuse moment.

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