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Is Microsoft going back to the future on release cadences?

Further spacing out Windows builds is only part of the quality story

Comment Industry talk of a revised engineering schedule that would see Microsoft take a step back from the regular Windows release cadence of recent years in favor of a three-yearly cycle is gaining volume. Could this be a cure for the giant's quality woes?

Users of a certain age will remember how the cadence used to be. Windows 1.0 turned up in 1985, Windows 2.0 in 1987 and Windows 3.0 in 1990. Windows 3.1 and 3.11 appeared in 1992 and 1993 respectively before the big bang of Windows 95 in 1995.

And so it would go on until 2015 and the release of Windows 10, when something decidedly odd happened to Microsoft. Windows 8 was created with a face not even the most devoted parent could love, but Windows 10 was the first release where the company decided that maybe testing wasn't so quite so important after all.

Veteran Microsoft watcher Mary Jo Foley observed in 2014 that one of Microsoft's regular restructures would lead to layoffs among Windows' dedicated testers and changes to developer-to-tester ratios.

"The goal," she wrote, "is to make the OS team work more like lean startups than a more regimented and plodding one adhering to two to three-year planning, development, testing cycles."

The dread word "agile" was slung around and the result was the catastrophic Windows 10 October 2018 release and a Windows Insider program driven more by personality than a desire to make a product that customers wanted. 3D gimmicks and ninja cats are all very well, but not accidentally deleting files would be a good deal better.

With Windows 11, Microsoft sought to draw a line under things. Those six-monthly releases? Slowed to annual. And now, if the talk is to be believed, the pace will be slowed further back to the familiar three-year cycle. New features might be added, perhaps more quickly than before, but the frantic rate at which Microsoft would push out new versions of Windows would be consigned to history.

This is undoubtedly a good thing. Stability is something that has been missing from the Windows world for some time. However, dropping the cadence to every three years is only part of the story. Microsoft needs to take a good, hard look at how it manages testing and quality.

While the CI/CD platforms might be splendid for the odd app or two, applying the methodology to a system as sprawling as Windows is fraught with hazard and, as we previously wrote just after the Windows 10 October 2018 fiasco, depending too much on the self-selecting Windows Insiders to catch whoopsies before they hit end users is not a robust testing approach.

That Windows boots at all, considering just how much backwards compatibility is required, is a feat in and of itself and attempts to deal with all that cruft (most recently via the doomed Windows 10X) have tended to flounder on the requirement to make that one weird app work. Even if Microsoft is somewhat more cavalier when it comes to hardware requirements.

Shifting back to a three-year cycle does signify a return to business as usual at Microsoft, which might be disappointing for some.

However, with an operating system as bloated and as resistant to being broken up as Windows, a bit more time to make sure the core won't explode messily on the desktops of users seems prudent. Sling out the non-core features and apps as often as you like (particularly if some on the team suffer from FOMO when regarding their rivals), but make sure the core gets the care and quality control it, and its users, need.

The Register asked Microsoft if it could comment on the release cadence for Windows. "Microsoft does not comment on rumor or speculation," a spokesperson told us. ®

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