Microsoft developer Jerry Nixon famously called Windows 10 "the last version of Windows," but now that Windows 10 is five years old, it is difficult to know if this is still true.
Whether Windows 10 is the final iteration of Windows OSes or not is a difficult question to answer, and customers may wonder if there will ever be a Windows 11. These questions are only more relevant as some have grown frustrated with the strategy surrounding Windows 10 and its update structure.
These questions don't have simple answers, but learning how Microsoft came to this approach may give Microsoft customers a better idea of what they can expect.
The history of Windows OSes
Looking at the Windows timeline, there is a historic pattern of updates that Microsoft held to for a long time. With the release of Windows 10 in July 2015, Microsoft broke a more than 25-year update practice that applied to Windows NT, Windows 95, Windows XP, Windows 2000, Windows 7, Windows 8, Windows 8.1 and others such as Windows ME and Vista -- though they were such failures that Microsoft backed out of them.
With the old approach, Microsoft would fully support a version of Windows for about three years. Then, Microsoft would release a new version of Windows and the old version would remain in support for a few years, and it would lose mainstream support after a few more years. For customers that needed longer terms of support for legacy applications or hardware, they could pay Microsoft a premium fee for extended support. In addition, each new version of Windows had version updates called Service Packs, which contained bug fixes, security patches and feature improvements.
This practice caused major headaches for the IT staff who had to perform a complete rollout of a new OS and Service Packs to all devices every few years. Many users hated getting a new version of Windows and having to learn new features, a new UI and so forth, which caused a learning curve and poor productivity every few years.
This approach wasn't easy for Microsoft either. Like other software vendors, Microsoft continued fighting to keep software pirates at bay, and Microsoft began licensing schemes and activation processes to guarantee everyone using Windows had paid for it. When people accessed Windows for free via workarounds to evade licensing costs, it hurt Microsoft's ability to maintain a stable platform. Many software vendors resolved the piracy issue by moving to a subscription-based cloud service, but the OS can't be in the cloud -- except for organizations that opt for virtual desktops.
Microsoft developed a final Windows platform that would only be updated, not replaced, and decided the best strategy was to give Windows away for free, in a sense. Microsoft named this build Windows 10.
Rather than having the user or organization buy Windows licenses every time it was updated, Microsoft would charge the OEM of the device a fee to put Windows on it. Then, Microsoft would provide free security and feature updates to licensed devices and the OEMs would ship the devices with Windows installed. This meant no more buying Windows every few years, no worries about piracy because it's essentially free with the purchase of a licensed device, and a stable platform for application and device development.
The problem with this strategy was that Microsoft had to get all the current user base on Windows 10 to ensure compliance. Microsoft took a financial hit and gave away Windows 10 as a free download for a limited time to encourage the existing Windows user base to migrate to Windows 10.
However, in spite of deadlines for the free updates and advertised fees for Windows 10, it is still available as a free download to devices with legal, authorized copies of Windows 7 or 8. While it's reasonable to expect trouble with this approach, this process generally goes smoothly.
Windows 10 updates and improvements
Although there are no more major Windows version upgrades, there are updates and bug fixes. Windows administrators are very aware that new Windows versions and Service Packs failed in the past, requiring additional fixes and updates to fix the updates. If IT administrators didn't maintain a fully updated OS, it fell out of support, meaning Microsoft would only give a "best effort" to fix issues and would not address bugs.
It was a huge effort for any IT administrator to handle. They had to purchase deployment tools, hire staff to run the deployments, validate updates and pay for new Windows every few years. Independent software vendors and OEMs continually had to update drivers to work with the new Windows platform.
So how has this changed in Windows 10?
For the most part, the updates and version strategy has not changed, but implementation is a little different. There are still updates released twice a year in the form of feature and security updates. Admins must update the OS via the Windows Update Service and the Windows 10 builds do go out of support.
The difference with Windows 10 is that these changes are, for the most part, done under the covers and don't require a massive overhaul. The OS typically performs the updates automatically, but admins can turn this off for testing purposes and trigger the updates manually.
The updates are distributed automatically via Windows, and Microsoft has a priority schedule to determine which systems gets updates in what order.
The Windows Update settings can be found by entering "Windows Update settings" in the Windows 10 search bar (Figure 1). In this dialog, Windows administrators can:
- View the current version -- or update/build -- applied to the computer
- Determine if the computer needs to restart to apply updates
- Schedule or delay the restart
- View update history
- Manage advanced options
Additionally, entering "Winver" in the search bar will display a window with the current version (Figure 2).
The good news is as follows:
- No testing hardware for Windows compatibility. The OEM does that, but most organizations should still test any new builds before deployment.
- No deployment of new OS or OS migration.
- No user learning curve or accompanying complaints.
- No new OS purchase because the Windows cost is rolled into the cost of the computer -- after purchase of the machine, the updates are free.
- The option to delay the update if there are reports of a bad update; this option is in Update Settings.
- Update details are still published in KB articles which also include known issues, fixes and release notes such as that shown for Release 1903 -- the May 2020 update (Figure 3).
- Updates still fail -- such as the May 2020 build -- but Microsoft releases out of band updates to fix the broken ones
There is a very helpful Windows 10 Update History dashboard with links to past versions showing KB articles, known problems and fixes for the problems. (Figure 4).
Will there be a Windows 11?
It's impossible to say at this moment whether or not there will be a Windows 11. However, for the foreseeable future, there is only Windows 10 and Microsoft hasn't indicated that this will change any time soon. The Windows 10 release strategy is sound as it has been working well enough for five years, despite some notable hiccups. There is no reason to think it will change any time soon.
What is Windows 10X?
Originally, Microsoft wanted Windows 10 to run on all devices: PCs, notebooks, tablets, phones, etc. But it hasn't worked out that way, partly due to some devices dropping out of the landscape. Windows 10x is a hybrid of Windows 10 that applies to dual-screen tablets and phones.
Windows 10x allows viewing across screens similar to the way dual monitors work for PCs. Windows 10x was announced in October 2019 but is still not released at the time this article is published. Windows 10 is, for now, the only Windows product for use on all Windows-compatible devices other than foldable devices, which will run Windows 10X.