Windows 10: The downside of digital gatekeepers

It makes sense to let people who want to use your product get their hands on it. Within reason, companies should do everything they can to get out of their way.

Digital delivery is great in theory. No more queuing round the block or packages lost in the post - just software, movies and music streamed directly to you.

What's less desirable is how modern platforms for delivering digital data can put us at the mercy of a gatekeeper, who controls when and how we get software.

Take Windows 10. Yesterday, Microsoft made it clear that not everyone who upgrades to Windows 10 will receive their copy via Windows Update on the day of release.

To be fair to Microsoft, it previously stated the OS would be available "from" the 29th of July, it's a free update and the reason for staggering the release is to confirm each system is compatible - which sounds reasonable.

However, the delay demonstrates how relying on app stores, Windows Update and other centrally-controlled platforms for digital delivery means ceding control over our access to software.

It's something I've felt rather acutely this week when trying to update to the latest build Windows 10 via the Insider Program.

The phrase 'Checking for updates...' has been etched into memory after countless failed attempts to get Windows Update to upgrade to the latest build.

For days, nothing persuaded Windows to give me the update. Registry hacks and two reinstalls later I'm still stuck on Build 10130 despite being signed into the 'Fast' ring to get the latest builds of Windows 10.

Yesterday it even seemed like the update might be happening, but after several reboots Windows 10 suffered an error and rolled back to the earlier build of Windows.

Some of the problems I encountered were undoubtedly my fault, I wouldn't advise the Registry tweak for one, but I am far from the only person to run into these problems.

Besides being an irritant, the experience reinforces how centralised platforms for digital delivery leave you vulnerable to the whims of the platform holder. You're told available updates don't exist with little clear indication as to why. The reasons for your failure are opaque, making it difficult to fix what's going wrong.

Why not just give people more choice? By virtue of its distributed nature the internet allows data to be shared from many different points. Why insist on software being doled out via a central channel in instances where it's not necessary? If people want to use your product then why get in their way? Why not make it available in a form that can be downloaded from across the net?

In the case of Windows 10, why not provide downloadable ISOs for all early builds of Windows 10 under the Insider Program, rather than just the older 'Slow ring' versions? Finally, four days after I started trying to upgrade, I see the new build is now available to download from Microsoft's site.

And when it comes to the release of Windows 10 to market, it would be good to see an option for people to upgrade from Windows 7 and 8.1 in ways other than via Windows Update. The option to upgrade via an ISO download from the day of Windows 10's release would presumably address the complaints of those who don't want to wait to receive it.

I'm not arguing that controlling the release of software is in itself a bad thing, in Windows 10's case the compatibility checks via Windows Update could help ensure the OS stands more chance of running well when machines are upgraded. But don't make centralised platforms the only channel for delivering software, give people more of a choice in how they access your product. Make your software available in as many ways as possible. It'll be better for everyone.

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