Although Microsoft has not yet said how it will deal out the year's Windows 10 feature upgrades, it's becoming clear there's next to no reason for the vendor to diverge from 2019's major-minor cadence.
As the death toll from the Covid-19 pandemic continues to climb worldwide, and the disruption of modern life and business continues to sow chaos, 2020 will be a tough year no matter how one cuts it.
In a time of unprecedented changes triggered by the novel coronavirus, there's no rationale to change what worked for Windows 10 last year.
Microsoft, of course, will do what it wants - and commercial customers will have to deal with the results. But there are good reasons why the Redmond should seriously rethink any plan to mess with 2019's release scheme.
First, a short recap of last year
For the two years of 2017 and 2018, Microsoft's Windows 10 feature upgrade practice consisted of two more-or-less-equally-robust refreshes containing new features and functionality. Those upgrades arrived in the spring and fall, typically in April and October, and were tagged as yy03 and yy09, respectively.
But last year Microsoft altered that schedule. The spring upgrade, 1903 was a feature-and-functionality refresh. But the fall's 1909 was little more than a rerun of its predecessor, albeit with a small number of additional minor features. It was so like the long-unused "service pack" concept Microsoft relied on through Windows 7 that older customers immediately labeled it as such.
The two, 1903 and 1909, shared the same code by October, allowing Microsoft to deliver the latter as a standard monthly update, which users who migrated from spring to fall could install much faster than a typical feature upgrade.
Pundits and news outlets, including Computerworld, labeled the 2019 cadence as "major-minor" to describe the volume of change in each and their relative value.
Enterprises that deployed 1909 - under Microsoft's policy, that version provided 30 months of support to Windows 10 Enterprise and Windows 10 Education, a year's worth more than 1903 - were generally upbeat about the fall upgrade, simply because there was less to it.
Still, Microsoft has so far declined to say how it would deliver Windows 10 upgrades in 2020. Two feature-rich releases? Or one real upgrade and a follow-up that is one in name only?
The company hasn't yet shown its cards.
Delay Windows 10 2004
Microsoft may have finished 2004, the year's first Windows 10 feature upgrade, but it's not announced when it will release it.
But really, what's the rush?
While the moniker may foretell April as its release (or even May, acknowledging the company's habit of delivering upgrades a month after the designation), there's no reason why Microsoft couldn't delay its delivery to the summer or even later.
Developers have already made moves like this: Google suspended Chrome upgrades last week; Microsoft quickly followed suit, saying it would do the same for its Edge browser. Microsoft also extended support for Windows 10 1709 to Enterprise and Education SKU (stock-keeping units) customers by six months, until October 13.
All these calls were made because of the pandemic's impact on business, motivated by developers' own decisions to send workforces home and by the realisation that upgrades are superfluous when a crisis is at hand.
IT personnel have enough to do to keep the technological lights on and users don't need the kind of stress a botched upgrade would provoke when there is already a stress surplus generated by the virus.
"If it's not broken, don't fix it" never made so much sense.
If Microsoft issues Windows 10 2004 later than its numeric name implies - mid-to-late summer, say, for argument's sake - the need for another feature-filled upgrade during the remainder of the year falls to zero when next year's 2103 should land in April.
A service-pack-esque release in the vein of 1909 would do just fine.
Why not just bag 2009 altogether?
If times are so tough that Microsoft shouldn't go back to its 2017-2018 pattern, why can't the company just forget about the fall upgrade and be done with it?
Microsoft can, of course. It's the one making the rules, and there's no referee saying different.
But the fall upgrade serves a crucial purpose under Redmond's current policies: It's the version that awards 30 months of support to Windows 10 Enterprise and Windows 10 Education customers. Sans Windows 10 2009, IT admins whose charges are running 1903 or earlier would be between the rock of no upgrade and the hard place of no security patches.
Enterprise/Education customers will not want to adopt a yy03 version because it offers only 18 months of support, far too little (as Microsoft acknowledged when it bent to customer pressure and debuted the 30 months nearly two years ago).
But with 2009 out of the picture, the next fall refresh, a putative 2109, won't be available until around October 2021, probably not reliable enough for businesses until early 2022.
Only Windows 10 1909 has an end-of-support date after that: Its retirement is currently to be May 10, 2022. Expecting organisations to be able to migrate to a new version in just a few months? That's a fool's errand.
Dumping 2009 would put enterprises in a bind, not this year but at the end of the next and the beginning of the year after that (hopefully long after COVID-19 is in the rearview mirror). They would be forced to migrate to one of the spring upgrades and settle for just 18 months of support, knowing that they would have to shortly do it all over again.
By "shortly," Computerworld means sooner than wanted. Let's say Microsoft does scratch 2009. An enterprise with PCs running Windows 10 1809 would normally target 2009 as the replacement, aiming to upgrade every two years. But with Windows 10 2009 missing, the firm would have only poor choices, as the following figure shows.
More options for Microsoft
One option would be to accelerate migration to annually and upgrade to Windows 10 1909 starting in the last months of 2020 or the first of 2021. (Windows 10 1809 falls off support in May 2021.) Later, the company could return to the every-two-year tempo by moving from 1909 to 2109 during the opening months of 2022.
Another would be to deploy the delayed 2004 later this year, even though that version comes with only 18 months of support, then get back to a release with 30 months of support, such as 2109.
Making that might be tough, though, as 2004's support would expire just six months into 2109's lifespan. If Microsoft doesn't shove 2004's release back several months, this move would be impossible.
A missing fall upgrade, even one in the mould of a feature-free service pack, would clearly ruin the rhythm businesses have set for managing Windows 10. That's why Microsoft would almost certainly issue something other than 2004 this year.