Meet the new ways Microsoft will add features to Windows 11
Microsoft said recently that it will be delivering its first real update to Windows 11 this month, including an improved taskbar and a taskbar weather widget. But how it delivers those new features to your PC won’t be immediately obvious. A recent blog post, however, provides some clues on what to expect.
Windows 10 and Windows 11 users are used to receiving notices about upcoming Windows feature updates, either within the Windows Update subsection of the Windows 10 Settings menu, or via a popup notification. Microsoft recently said Windows will be one big feature update per year going forward. But there are new, smaller ways in which Microsoft will be rolling out improvements to Windows outside of those milestone releases, too. (Credit to ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley for calling this out.)
In a blog post explaining what’s next for the Windows Insider program, Microsoft explained how it would deliver updates to its Beta and Dev Channels outside of new, formal builds. The mechanisms that Microsoft will use were explained in the context of the Insider program, but they can and probably will be used for delivering updates to the stable channel of Windows 11 (and possibly 10, too). They’re known as Feature Experience Packs, Web Experience Packs, and Online Service Experience Packs, and you may see all three show up inside Windows Update.
Historically, new features shipped with new releases. Microsoft would ship them both in “service packs” to older versions of Windows, and migrated them to Windows 10 and Windows 11 in feature releases such as, for example, the Windows 10 Creators Update. But Microsoft has tried to uncouple various elements of Windows into their own development tracks, so they can be maintained and updated on their own schedule. A good example of this are some of the built-in Windows apps, which now are typically updated via the Windows Store.
In 2020, Microsoft introduced a new update mechanism: the Windows Feature Experience Pack, which tried to accommodate small improvements that fell in the cracks. “Is it fair to characterize the WFEP as a channel for updating experiences that aren’t tightly coupled with the OS, are not apps in the Store, and are not features-on-demand?” one user asked then — and the answer was a simple “yes.”
One example of a new “feature experience” was using the screen snipping experience (Win + Shift + S) to create a snip of your screen and paste it directly into a folder of your choice in File Explorer to save the screenshot there. So yes, something new — but nothing deserving of an entire feature update.
Online Service Experience Packs appeared last October, as part of Windows 11 Insider Preview Build 22489. Microsoft used the new Online Service Experience Pack to add a “dashboard” to the Windows 11 Settings > Account submenu, showing the status of your Microsoft 365 subscriptions, for example. At the time, Microsoft said that it would roll out the new dashboard to a very small set of Insiders.
“The difference between [Feature and Online Experience Packs] is that the Windows Feature Experience Packs can deliver broad improvements across multiple areas of Windows, whereas the Online Service Experience Packs are focused on delivering improvements for a specific experience such as the new Your Microsoft account settings page,” Microsoft explained. “For example, under Windows Update this would appear as ‘Online Service Experience Pack – Windows.Settings.Account’ with a version number.”
That last sentence will be the tell — if you see a notice about a new Online Service Experience Pack within the Windows Update menu, something new and specific will be headed to your Windows 11 machine.
We don’t yet know what a “Web Experience Pack” entails, but we can imagine that it will something tied to the Web within Windows. It’s possible that we could see smaller representations of Web pages within the Widgets menu, possibly.
This does somewhat undercut Microsoft’s plan to move to a single annual feature release for Windows, however, since these small “point” releases could roll out at any time, really. On one hand, those of you who prefer that Windows gets left well enough alone may be upset that there’s now an easy way for Microsoft to tweak Windows. On the other hand, individual teams of developers within Microsoft will now have new tools to respond to user feedback more quickly.
What we don’t know, however, is how Microsoft will use these new capabilities. Will small point updates become common? Will Microsoft announce them? If you’re concerned, our tutorial on how to manage Windows updates may be useful: Simply pause them until you’re sure about what Microsoft is rolling out. Otherwise, you should see some new features arrive on Windows 11 in the weeks ahead.
As PCWorld’s senior editor, Mark focuses on Microsoft news and chip technology, among other beats. He has formerly written for PCMag, BYTE, Slashdot, eWEEK, and ReadWrite.