The Windows Insider Program has lost its way

Update: After having read this story, please also read the follow-up.

It’s September 30th, 2014. Less than a year after the public release of Windows 8.1 and only a little over 5 months after the Windows 8.1 Update 1-release, many of us where watching a livestream from Microsoft about “the future of Windows”. It was the live stream that kicked off the Windows Insider Program.

Look at that screen. See that? DLL isn’t the new OMG, PXE boot isn’t a girl punk band and BIOS isn’t a plant-based fuel. Geek out. All indicators to point out that the Windows Insider Program is some serious business where feedback is important and people who have little to no knowledge about these kind of things should stay away from.

Fast forward to 2017 and the most recurring thing many Microsoft employees related to the Windows Insider Program are talking about are… cats. And taco-hats. And socks with ninja cats on. What the hell happened?

I remember those first months really well. We saw features in the Windows Insider Previews evolve. Remember how the Action center got introduced? It was a small fly-out, broken, with notifications that couldn’t be interacted with beyond swiping them away. Quick actions where nowhere to be found. We got blog post after blog post explaining the program, how Windows was being developed, how Microsoft considered feedback from one build to the next. We got full blog post solely dedicated to explaining how feedback influenced a single feature (the “Made by you”-series, that stopped months ago).

Bug bashes where actual fun. We got almost daily updates. Microsoft gave us numbers of how much feedback was being send. We got statistics of how things were going. The Insider Hub (as it was back then) was alive, Bug bashes didn’t involve an endless list of quests. No, instead they were focused. It wasn’t just us doing one quest after another. And there was still a point in collecting the badges (the achievements).

As time went on, more and more of this started to disappear. Bug bashes became boring tasks with no real response from Microsoft’s side, the interesting blog posts started to disappear, while in its place came dumb jokes about a cat riding a T-rex with bacon. New achievements where promised months into the program, but now almost 3 years later, we are still on the initial set of achievements. They even didn’t bother anymore to give “Shipped Windows 10 <name> Update”-badges.

The “Winsiders4Good” program started to pull more attention away from the Windows Insider Program as well. Look, I get why Microsoft wants to do such a program, but what the hell does it have to do with testing new features and early builds of Windows? Nothing. This shouldn’t be part of the Windows Insider Program.

The Windows Insider Program has become an insult to what it once was supposed to be. I get that this program grows and evolves, but when I think that such a program would evolve, the way I would think it would go is towards a community website where people can help each other out with issues in previews, where we can discuss new features that landed and how they should evolve. You know: provide feedback. Have a proper place to go into a discussion with Microsoft’s engineers. Instead, we need to find news websites that talk about these new builds or talk about this on Twitter. I’d expect more places to read about all the processes within Microsoft: how are things designed, how do they test this, how did we get where we are, why is this being replaced by that? But instead, we got less and less of these kind of articles. Anyways, that’s how I would expect it to evolve, and I think that’s true for the majority of the Windows Insiders out there that are truly here for the goal the Windows Insider Program once had.

Instead, it evolved by adding more and more variations of ninja cats, hiding build numbers in photos (every now and then even a completely wrong build), helping 3rd world countries and we’re still trying to talk with Microsoft employees on a 140-characters-limited micro blog. In WindowsInsider-streams on Remix, we’re talking about Joe’s hair style and taco hats, repeatedly.

Again, the Winsiders4Good program certainly deserves a place in Microsoft, but I don’t get why there has to be a connection to the Windows Insider Program where there isn’t. For all the other things: Microsoft should have stopped it from going as far as it did way before it went so far out of hand.

Now, to be fair, there are still the occasionally in-depth pieces like one of these streams that went over the whole upgrade process and yes, they also announced that there will be a website and that they would talk about how Windows would be built in August. But why only now? August 2017 is just a month short of the Windows Insider Program’s 3rd anniversary, and we’re only now going to talk about one of the most important processes that make the Windows Insider Program possible in the first place? What?

There used to be some in-depth awesome content in the Insider Hub/Feedback Hub. We got pieces like “Windows 10: Memory Compression”, all the various “Windows 10 Team profiles”, “Context menu improvements based on Insider feedback” (the article that basically kicked of the “Made by you”-series for as long as it lasted) and more. None of that we see now.

Meanwhile, Windows development itself isn’t as it used to be either. During the Threshold 1 development, we often saw features that where half-assed (in a good way, for this occasion) getting introduced into these builds, like the earlier mentioned Action center, or the Start menu, Settings and many more. But now? These days, we get features that are, feature-wise, complete but buggy and there is nearly no development to these afterwards. MyPeople is a very good example. It got introduced early in the Redstone 3-cycle, gained “Pop” and then… nothing. Bugfixes. But it is still far away from what Microsoft showed when they were announcing Redstone 2. And that would be fine, if we saw it evolve. But we don’t.

And for the announcements on the blog? If you go into the Feedback Hub right now, you’ll see only announcements of new builds. And that insulting announcement about the Slow Ring getting a cumulative update as if it had anything to do with the Insider Program. Where’s the quality content?

I do not like to point fingers, but there is — if you ask me — a clear point in time, and with that a clear person to point at, where the Windows Insider Program started to go south. Let me make my case.

Gabriel Aul (the first head of the Windows Insider Program) rarely announced new builds ahead of time. But when he did, this is how that looked like:

See that? The build 9879 announcement was clear and to the point. We knew what to expect later that day, we didn’t need to go search and also important: you could see they spend time with this. They cared. The build Microsoft released that day was build 9879, sounds obvious, but we would find out years later that it isn’t. The build 9860 sneak peek on the other hand, while perhaps having spent less time on making it, teased what we could expect. In 9860’s case, we got the Action center, or at least a very early version of it. More importantly, the build we got later that day was 9860. In contrast, this is the last announcement Dona Sarkar made:

Not only is this just a photo, it really gave me the sense that they couldn’t care less. Because, first of all, do you see the build number in this picture? No? I can tell you it is there, but they hide it. Here is where the serious nature of the Windows Insider Program already started to fade: instead of clear announcements, we got photos with fuzzy numbers. And this latest announcement actually succeeded in being even more insulting. Now, the build number in this picture is written on the blue sticky note on the laptop. The number written on it is 16320. The builds that got released later that day? 16241 and 15230. Whut? I’m not kidding.

The people in this program are adults, Microsoft, we’re not here to play hide and seek.

Let me share a couple of other tweets Gabe send out during his time as the head of the Windows Insider Program:

You see what all of this is? Useful content for Windows Insiders. The 1st, 2nd and 5th tweet tell us what we, the Insider community, are doing. The 3rd and 4th tweet draw attention to the people responsible and provide actual valuable information as these where announcements for when new builds would be available. The 6th tweet on the other hand shows us progress Microsoft is making in the Windows Feedback app. And these are just his tweets, never mind the blogposts.

So how does Dona Sarkar do on this field? Well… I scrolled through the media content on her Twitter account and the closest thing that she actually posted pictures of that is somewhat related (although I dare to say otherwise) to the Windows Insider Program beyond hide and seek build announcements and photos of conferences is this:

“#DoingTheThing”? What is this? The Legend of Korra? What does that even mean? Side note: it is only today that I noticed that they renamed this “Insiders4Good”. Now, I have to say that I stopped scrolling down when I reached 1 April 2017 because the list of photos goes on and on. But I can honestly not remember her posting any other content. And I’m not talking about her personal stuff here, it’s her personal Twitter account, it isn’t a Microsoft-only-thing, she has the right to post whatever she wants and I’m fine with that. It’s just that when it comes to content about the Windows Insider Program, since Dona took over, it has been lacking.

Now, Dona herself would often refer you to the @WindowsInsider account on Twitter to get Insider-only news. And to that I’ve got only 1 thing to say: shut up. Seriously. That answer would be acceptable if it wasn’t for the fact that Insiders are here to get the latest-of-the-latest, getting constantly updated, and an account that only announces a new build hours, if not days after it’s original release is just another insult.

And don’t get me wrong on this either: I’m not blaming JUST Dona, there is a whole team behind this, she can’t do this on her own. Fact is, this isn’t what Windows Insiders originally signed up for, and when I see things like this:

I really need to scratch my head. 91%? Who the hell did they survey here? The people at Windows4Good events? Also, want “more than build exploration”. More than a thing we’re not seeing in the first place? This is plain ridiculous and I dare to call bullshit on that “91%” figure.

The major issue here is that Microsoft seems to prefer boosting the number of Insiders over the quality of the feedback those people provide and in that, they have started to attract people that simply aren’t up for what the Insider Program was originally made for: testing Windows and reporting bugs and ideas for how to make it better.

We don’t need a “Windows Insider Chief Ninja Cat”. We need engineers who are willing to talk without trying to make everything a meme.

I miss the old days.

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