Is Microsoft’s Windows Insider program an exciting opportunity for businesses to stay ahead of the curve? Or is it a colossal waste of time for most companies? That’s the question I found myself asking both myself and some IT pro colleagues I was having lunch with the other day.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Windows Insider program, it was launched back in 2014 as a way of giving IT pros and PC enthusiasts access to early builds of the soon-to-be-released Windows 10 client operating system. Microsoft announced at the time that Windows Insider builds were not to be considered of production quality and therefore should not be deployed or used by business users, or at least only by users who are technically proficient. Basically, the Insider program was intended as a beta program that would eventually replace the Microsoft Connect program, which was finally retired earlier this year. I fondly remember the Connect program and spent many hours over the years identifying and filing bugs with the program for products ranging from Windows Server to Microsoft SharePoint. Of course being a bug basher in a beta program isn’t all fond memories — there are times when I threw up my hands in despair and shouted “Why is that happening?!?” when some newly introduced feature of a product failed spectacularly. But I’m sure my feedback had some positive benefit in helping Microsoft improve their products — or at least I hope so.
Advantages of being a Windows Insider
Anyway, the Windows Insider program sounds at first like a terrific deal because it allows anyone who currently has a valid license for Windows 10 or Windows Server 2016 to download prerelease builds of these operating systems that were previously available only to developers. All you need to register for the Insider program is a Microsoft account, which is easy to get if you don’t already have one. PC enthusiasts can register quickly using their Microsoft account, and once you’ve registered you can install the latest Insider Preview version of Windows 10 and engage with Microsoft by offering feedback on your experience using it. You can then report any bugs you find to Microsoft by using the Feedback Hub.
If you’re an IT pro, however, you can get even more Insider benefits by registering with the Windows Insider Program for Business which lets you install Insider Preview builds on multiple PCs in your organization. The biggest advantage of doing this is so you can validate your organization’s infrastructure and apps against these Insider builds. That way your organization can be better prepared for the next major release of Windows 10 and Windows Server.
Or at least that’s the Kool-Aid that Microsoft wants us to drink. Is it true?
Why I’m not a Windows Insider
First, let me come clean right at the start by saying that although I joined the Insider program shortly after it first appeared, I’ve long since stopped actively participating in it. I’ll get to the reasons for this in a moment. Interestingly, however, none of the other colleagues from the IT profession that I had lunch with last week participate either in the business side of the Insider program. For simplicity let me explain what two of them had to say about the program: Alice (not her real name) who is on the IT team of a fairly large organization of about 1500 users, and Bob who is the sole IT person for a smallish business that employs 15 people. Neither Alice nor Bob are their real names, and I’ve fictionalized their complaints to hide their identities.
Let’s start off with Bob. In Bob’s opinion, the Insider Program for Business doesn’t work for most small and midsized businesses simply because of the limited IT resources such organizations have. When you’re the only person doing IT for a company, you have to manage your time carefully and allocate cycles where they are most needed. For most SMBs, that means the IT person or persons are kept busy pretty much flat-out simply to ensure that (a) computer problems are fixed (b) line of business (LoB) apps work properly (c) the Internet connection is alive, and (d) users are happily doing their jobs. Anything that comes on top of that, whether deployment planning or testing new cloud services or learning about new vulnerabilities and threats is mostly icing on the cake for most IT pros who support and maintain SMBs. Although my own experience and those of most of my colleagues suggest that the majority of Insider builds of Windows 10 are pretty stable (at least for builds in the Slow Ring vs. those from the Fast Ring) and I’ve actually known several IT pros who have installed Insider builds on their own work machines and used them mostly without problems. Occasionally they’ve had to roll back buggy builds, and on one build recent VPN networking broke and this caused some frustration. But yes you can use Insider builds on production machines as long as you’re savvy enough to know how to deal with situations where features you rely upon don’t work.
This wasn’t Bob’s view, however, and Alice agreed though for different reasons. In enterprise environments like Alice’s, planning is a big part of what IT staff do. For example, it’s not a trivial task to deploy a new version of Windows to thousands or tens of thousands of machines. Enterprise IT tends to be very process-oriented and to utilize Insider builds in such environments means first that IT has the time necessary not just to try deploying Insider builds to machines on a test network but also to validate the deployment by testing whether the organization’s internal and cloud services and apps function properly on the deployed build. In other words, enterprises need to follow the same carefully designed procedures for deployment and testing of pre-release Windows versions as they do with final released versions. Now if you consider that Windows Insider preview builds are released almost weekly, you can immediately see the amount of work that would be involved in testing such builds against the company’s IT framework because of the massive drain on the time and energy and resources that such testing would entail within an enterprise IT environment.
Finally, let me end off as promised by explaining why I’ve stopped trying out Insider builds myself. I’m simply too busy. Aren’t you?
What do you think?
How do you feel as an IT pro about the Windows Insider program? Share your feedback with us and with other readers by posting your comments below.