We have reached a very familiar spot in the Windows 10 feature update development cycle as Microsoft locks down the feature set for the fourth major update on the two year old operating system.
It is at this point that Microsoft transitions the current testing builds for the Fall Creators Update that have been in the RS_PRERELEASE branch and moves them over to the RS3_RELEASE branch so they can go through final testing and evaluation by both the Windows Engineering team and Insiders.
In addition to not seeing anymore new features added, the changes between builds leading up to the release of the Fall Creators Update, which is expected in the September timeframe, will be minimal and primarily focused on fixing bugs and performance issues.
However, there is one thing changing alongside of this transition that Microsoft has never done with the last three feature update development cycles. A limited number of Windows Insiders will be able to skip ahead and begin receiving the first builds for the fifth major feature update, known by its code name of Redstone 4 and expected to be delivered in the Spring of 2018, and begin testing those early builds well ahead of the Fall Creators Update's release this September.
Since first party apps like Windows Store, Groove Music, and Mail & Calendar get locked down in the final stages of the feature update development, Windows Insiders will also be able to continue receiving those early updates as well if they jump over to the Redstone 4 builds.
According to the announcement in the Feedback Hub on Windows 10, the number of Windows Insiders that will be able to skip ahead is limited. Microsoft needs to make sure that the final builds of the Fall Creators Update get used so that feedback and telemetry data on its performance can be collected prior to its release to make sure the best possible update is released on time.
If you want to make this jump here is how you do it:
Go to Windows Settings>Update & Security>Windows Insider Program and under What kind of content would you like to receive? click the drop down box where you will see two options:
You will see two choices:
-- Active development of Windows
-- Skip ahead to the next Windows release
If you want to skip ahead then select the second option and you are done. You will then see updated text on this settings page:
If the number of slots for Windows Insiders to skip ahead have been all signed up for then you will see text here that indicates the option is now closed and unavailable.
As for skipping ahead and working with early builds of Redstone 4, as always there are caveats when working with these first builds of a new update:
"Before choosing to skip ahead – there are a few things to keep in mind: builds from RS_PRERELEASE will get less stable as teams start checking in new code. So just like Insider Preview builds usually are after a Windows 10 release, things will likely be a little rough. If this concerns you or makes you uncomfortable – don’t choose to skip ahead and simply wait for the Fast ring to transition back to RS_PRERELEASE down the road."
My thoughts: Although Microsoft is saying this option was created to allow Fast Ring Insiders to continue seeing updated inbox apps, which are no longer heading to RS3 builds right now, I think it is more about stretching out the number of development builds that are being tested for a feature update. Normally, the first RS_PRERELEASE build of a new feature update rolls out a couple of weeks after the release of the latest feature update. However, if we see early RS4 builds soon and the Fall Creators Update comes out in September as expected, that means an additional six to eight weeks those RS4 builds will get tested. In a development cycle that has already been squeezed into about four or five months between semi- annual feature updates, that can make a big difference.
Also don't forget that Microsoft engineers were already going to be working on these early builds for RS4 behind their office walls in Redmond so adding a shipping option to Insiders is just a few extra steps to put them out there for early access and testing.
I think it is a brilliant idea across the board but before anyone starts claiming that the recent manifesto about the state of the Windows Insider program was the catalyst for this change to make the program more technical and geeky I just want to say one thing. A change like this is not simple and is more than just flipping a few switches on the build servers at Microsoft. While this change will please many hardcore enthusiasts and Windows Insiders, I have no doubt that it was being planned and developed well before all the hubbub of the last week.
On a testing logistical note - I have now configured one bare metal testing device, the HP Spectre x360 (2015) running Windows 10 Pro, to skip ahead along with a Windows 10 Home Virtual Machine. My other bare metal testing hardware, a Surface Book, and a Windows 10 Pro Virtual Machine will remain on for the final stages of Redstone 3's development in the release branch.
Here at SuperSite: Windows we will continue to track releases for Redstone 3 on PC and the Windows 10 Mobile Feature 2 updates but we will also add a new tracker just for the Redstone 4 builds that should begin rolling out soon.
A final note - there is no Skip Ahead option for testers on Windows 10 Mobile in the Feature 2 branch. I believe the final update which should be released later this year will be the last one for Microsoft's mobile operating system. From that point forward I expect the focus to shift towards Windows 10 on small form factor devices with cellular connectivity options including phone calls, SMS, and data.
Microsoft should communicate these changes in and around that final update for Windows 10 Mobile so that is something we are still keeping an eye on.