Microsoft pledges two Windows 10 upgrades in 2017

This year's sole upgrade -- last week's 1607 -- will simplify enterprise migrations if they get going soon

Microsoft has committed to delivering two Windows 10 feature upgrades to customers next year after issuing only one in 2016.

The company released the one Windows 10 upgrade for this year last week when it shipped 1607, the version identified by its year and month, but also dubbed "Anniversary Update."

Windows 10 1607 is it for the year, Microsoft said. "Based on feedback from organizations moving to Windows 10, this will be our last feature update for 2016," wrote Nathan Mercer, a senior product marketing manager, on a company blog.

There will be "two additional feature updates expected in 2017," Mercer added. Mercer's comments were the first where Microsoft publicly spelled out its plans.

Microsoft's development and release tempo has been in flux for more than a year and a half. Prior to Windows 10's July 2015 launch the company regularly cited a three-times-annually cadence -- about every four months -- to describe the frequency of the feature upgrades it would deliver. But by November, it implied a slower pace when it switched to descriptions of "two to three times per year."

Microsoft reduced the rate to just one upgrade -- the label Microsoft applies to its feature refreshes, the naming of Anniversary Update notwithstanding -- for this year, but will double that in 2017.

Although some analysts have said the uncertain schedule could be fallout from the radical release model -- that Microsoft was incapable of delivering multiple upgrades every year, or at minimum was struggling to adapt -- Mercer attributed 2016's one-and-only upgrade to corporate customers' wishes.

That made sense: Some enterprises resisted a faster release cadence even before Microsoft introduced it with Windows 10. And they have even more reason to want fewer upgrades over the short term.

Windows 10's 1607 will be what enterprises begin to deploy in significant numbers, as it will coincide with the 2017-18 period during which most experts expect migrations to spike. By postponing 1607's successor from fall 2016 to spring or even early summer 2017, Microsoft extends the time 1607 will be supported.

Because Microsoft supports every individual business-centric feature upgrade until its second successor debuts, 1607 will remain active throughout 2017, perhaps into early- or mid-2018. Another upgrade this year -- say, in November, producing a 1611 version -- would accelerate the demise of 1607.

The time it will take to migrate to Windows 10 -- an average of about 18 months -- means that many companies will require multiple versions, starting with one, finishing with another. Introducing a 1611 version (with a follow-up in early 2017, perhaps 1704) would force corporations to utilize both 1607 and 1611 if they needed all of next year. Foregoing a hypothetical 1611, however, means that all of 2017 can be covered by just one version, last week's 1607.

(No one said that Microsoft's upgrade policies for Windows 10 are simple: The company tries to explain everything in a figure-filled document published on its website.)

Microsoft may not publicly promote the one upgrade in 2016 as a benefit -- if only because that would counter the narrative of more improvements and additions -- but it will certainly point that out to business customers: The focus on 1607 and spotlight on corporate migrations during 2017 fits with Microsoft's long-running campaign to get businesses onto Windows 10 faster than they have moved in the past.

The firm has argued for months that Windows 10 is ready for production deployment, trumpeted the enterprise-specific features it's introduced, and boasted of the customer numbers shifting to the operating system.

"We expect these advances will drive increased adoption of Windows 10, particularly in the enterprise, in the coming year," said CEO Satya Nadella during last month's earnings call with Wall Street, referring to Windows 10 enhancements such as Hello and Ink. "We already have strong traction, with over 96% of our enterprise customers piloting Windows 10."

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Gregg Keizer

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