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Happy fifth birthday, Windows Insiders! We'd bake a cake, but it might explode without warning
A bit like a dodgy Fast Ring build
Comment Come gather one and all to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Microsoft's Windows Insider programme and its army of volunteer testers.
The Insider scheme put in an appearance the day after Windows 10 was announced and was aimed at providing users with preview versions of Microsoft's biannually updated operating system in order that customers might check out new features ahead of time.
Announced by then Windows supremo Terry Myerson, the programme was aimed squarely at PC experts and IT pros who, according to Myerson, needed to be "comfortable using pre-release software with variable quality".
As it transpired, and thanks in part to the work of the Windows Insider programme itself, those experts would eventually be joined by ordinary users as the quality of Windows 10 releases suffered over the years.
Writing back in 2014, veteran Windows watcher Mary Jo Foley described the organisational changes being rolled out at Redmond.
"Under the new structure," she wrote, "a number of Windows engineers, primarily dedicated testers, will no longer be needed."
As it turned out, the Insiders would not just "shape Windows 10", as Myerson put it. They would become a critical part of the testing process. And things have not panned out as the exec might have hoped.
It all began so well. An optimistic posting by Brandon LeBlanc, who has stuck with the programme, promised Insiders would have an active role, and be able to report back through the Feedback app.
Four years later, ignoring that feedback led to a disastrous Windows 10 release and the accidental erasing of user data.
An early leader of the Insider programme, Gabe Aul, stayed with it for just under two years before handing his beloved big red build release button to fellow Microsoft staffer Dona Sarkar, arriving fresh from a stint on the HoloLens team.
Anatomy of the Insiders
As a reminder, the Windows Insider programme consists of four testing rings: a Release Preview Ring, supposedly the current branch and used just before updates head to the wider world; a Slow Ring for more stable preview code; a Fast Ring for more bleeding-edge builds; and finally Skip Ahead, for a glimpse of the version after next.
At least, that was the theory. The Rings have become a tad blurred over the years due to multiple builds with varying levels of functionality.
Heck, earlier this year every ring was accidentally hit with next year's Windows 10.
To celebrate five years of the Windows Insider programme, we've compiled a helpful list of the team's five greatest hits.
5. Communication failures
Compared to large chunks of the "new" Microsoft, the Windows team appears to still be in a world where customers should be grateful for any nugget of information. Compare and contrast with, for example, the efforts of the Windows Subsystem for Linux gang.
Things reached a head this year with the mystery of 19H2. What would be in it? Where was it? When would Insiders see it? All the team told its users was there'd be more "by the end of spring" before snottily stating that spring would end whenever the heck Microsoft said it would.
4. Ninja cats and taco hats
While Windows 10 quality began to whiff a little, the Windows Insider programme seemed more obsessed with outside activities, such as outreach work and mascots.
While the outreach efforts were laudable, customers were faced with borked patches and unstable updates.
Users could have been forgiven for wishing that similar amounts of energy had been spent on testing code and fixing bugs.
3. Springwatch and random testing
2018's first Windows 10 feature update suffered a mysterious delay until Microsoft finally admitted the thing was too buggy to release.
While that bullet was dodged, kind of, the Insider team also kicked off a journey that would leave its army of unpaid testers unable to actually test the technology for which they had signed up thanks to an electronic throw of the dice.
2. The October 2018 Update
Everything that was wrong with the Windows Insider programme was demonstrated last year with the Windows 10 October 2018 Update. The thing actually deleted your data if you were unlucky.
Things were so catastrophically bad that Microsoft was forced to pull the update mere days after release. A "small change" in approach meant that the Release Preview Ring was skipped, something LeBlanc tersely explained to concerned users.
It's not irrelevant. We just did a small change in our approach. 1809 is going to RP today and will be critical for helping kick start servicing. Slow was helpful in helping ID any show stopping bugs this time around.— Brandon LeBlanc (@brandonleblanc) October 2, 2018
1. Windows 10
Perhaps the greatest single achievement of the Windows Insider programme was to make Windows 10 "officially a shit show", according to our own Andrew Orlowski. Just as Microsoft was desperately trying to persuade users to migrate from Windows 7.
The Reg, along with other observers, suggested that Microsoft really ought to bring back those redundant testers, repurpose the Insider programme as something purely for the enthusiasts and, for goodness' sake, slow down.
As the Windows Insider programme celebrates its fifth birthday, the latter point appears to have been taken on board.
The next update, 19H2, due in October, will be little more than a jumped-up patch, meaning that 2019 will only have seen one major release, in the form of the relatively stable May 2019 Update.
However, the team has yet to confirm if this is the way things will be from now on.
And so, if we could give the Windows Insider programme one gift for its fifth birthday, it would the ability to communicate.
And maybe cut down on the borkage. ®