The Lumia 950, and its larger sibling, the Lumia 950XL, have just received a software update, taking them from Windows 10 Mobile build 10586.0 to build 10586.29. This is a minor update to fix some bugs and improve some upgrade scenarios (and it’s the update that will form the basis of our review of the operating system) but the content of the update itself is not really the important bit.
What’s remarkable about the update is two things. First, that it exists and is apparently being rolled out by Microsoft, at Microsoft’s discretion, on Microsoft’s timeline. Second, and related, that this update has a corresponding update for Windows 10 on the PC: Microsoft’s mobile and desktop systems are aligned. Windows 10 receives an update on Patch Tuesday and so Windows 10 Mobile receives an update on Patch Tuesday.
Windows 10 Mobile build 102586.29 was distributed to members of the Windows Insider program late last week, and opened up to Insiders using the 950 and 950XL, including AT&T units, yesterday. That much is unexceptional. The Windows Insider program, and before it, the Developer Preview program have for a few years now enabled Microsoft to push out new builds of Windows Phone 8.1 and Windows 10 Mobile to any Windows device, even if it’s carrier-branded and carrier-locked.
But for the Windows 8.1 previews, there was a sticking point. When the operating system update was finalized and ready for mass deployment, Microsoft didn’t just stuck it on Windows Update and give it to everyone in a free-for-all. Instead, Windows Phone users had to wait for carrier approval, a process that could take indeterminate weeks or months. The Developer Preview scheme was a kind of backdoor, a way of avoiding carrier interference, but asking users to opt into an occasionally unstable developer-oriented preview program just to get the latest version of the operating system was never an acceptable mainstream proposition.
Microsoft had previously said that Windows 10 Mobile updates would follow the same continuous update process as Windows on the desktop, but questions over the gap between the development process and the delivery of updates remained. After all, with Windows Phone 7 Microsoft initially said that it was in control of updates, with the company naively assuming that mobile phone operators wouldn’t stand in the way of delivering the best possible software experience to their
victims customers. It rapidly became clear that mobile carriers would do exactly that, creating a deeply suboptimal end-user experience.
Windows Phone 8 didn’t really alter this dynamic. While the developer preview program offered a workaround of sorts, anyone with a carrier branded device was subject to the whims of that carrier and its update policy.
It seems as if Windows 10 Mobile finally solves this problem. There’s still room for an element of skepticism; only one update has been released so far, and it’s certainly not impossible that future updates could be trickier. But as early indications go, this is a tremendously positive one: Microsoft becomes the second smartphone operating system vendor, after Apple, that can actually service its operating system to provide timely updates and fixes. Microsoft is arguably going one better than Apple; its updates will be predictable, based on the Patch Tuesday schedule, and with the Windows 10 Mobile Enterprise edition, existing patch management tools will be able to manage the phone platform too.
That’s one landmark event. The second is that the same operating system is now, finally, spanning phone, tablet, and PC. Microsoft has been pushing to have Windows everywhere for years. Last year, CEO Satya Nadella again said that “one single converged operating system” was the plan. This plan, “One Windows,” has long been the goal, but getting there was complex, not least because the version of Windows used on the desktop (Windows NT) was larger and more complex than the one initially used on smartphones (Windows CE). Windows Phone 8.1 did tremendous work in bringing NT to the phone, but it was still in important ways a different operating system to Windows 8 on the desktop; while applications could share code, and many APIs were common to both platforms, their functionality nonetheless diverged, and maintenance and updating of the two operating systems was completely separate.
That’s no longer the case. It’s true that there are still some things that the phone operating system can do that the desktop can’t, and vice versa—the phone can run existing Windows Phone 8.1 applications but can’t run Win32 desktop apps, while the desktop operating system ships with full Win32 desktop support but can’t run Windows Phone software—but the core elements are common between the two variants. They’re updated together, released together, and have a large software platform, the Universal Windows Platform, in common between the two.
At CES in 2011, then-CEO Steve Ballmer said that “Windows will be everywhere.” In 2015, the company at last has the operating system platform to make that a reality. It took a long time, and one wonders how the company’s mobile fortunes might have fared if it had happened sooner, but it’s a practical reality as of today. What remains now is refinement; the new Xbox One user experience updates the core Xbox operating system to be Windows 10-based, but it still sits somewhat separate from the PC (and now phone) platform. We’d expect this to change next year, when the Xbox One at last becomes an app platform that, too, will support UWP apps.
Listing image by Peter Bright