Recently, Microsoft made some big changes to the Windows Insider Program, introducing the brand-new Canary channel designed for testing extremely early Windows builds. While Microsoft won't say it, the prevailing theory is that this channel is where Microsoft is testing the rumored Windows 12, which has been reported to be launching in 2024.
As someone who's been part of the Windows Insider Program from the beginning, this should be exciting news. I love trying new features ahead of time, even if it's at the expense of some stability. And yet, knowing Microsoft's history with the Insider program, I'm just not enthused about this change, and I frankly doubt anyone is.
The Windows Insider Program isn't what it used to be
When Microsoft debuted the Windows Insider Program in September 2014 (the first build actually released on October 1, but you could sign up for the program the day before), it was clearly aimed at enthusiasts — people like me and other writers and readers here at XDA. It was for those who enjoy trying out new features very early on, even if they're broken or break other parts of the experience.
This is definitely a tiny subset of Windows users, but Microsoft knew who it was targeting, and so it knew what its goals were. Pushing big changes early and letting users deal with the problems was just part of the experience, but those who signed up for the program knew what they were in for. If you were in the Dev channel, many things just wouldn't work, or you may have to reset your PC or roll back to a previous version, and that was fine.
It also used to be that Microsoft would release new builds whenever it felt like it made sense, and most new builds would include a significant number of changes that made every build exciting. However, as time went on, it seemed like Microsoft wanted the Insider program to be more mainstream. Builds started releasing on a more frequent basis, and while that was fine at first, it now feels like it's done more so out of obligation than a desire to release something interesting to Insiders.
At the same time, Microsoft isn't comfortable making big new features available in very early testing stages or teasing users with potentially broken parts of Windows. I think back to the Sets feature that was tested repeatedly for Windows 10, which allowed almost any app to be opened inside a tab, so you could group your windows together as you see fit. Microsoft first introduced Sets during the development cycle for Redstone 4, which would become known as Windows 10 version 1803, then pulled it before release, only to test it again for Redstone 5 and ultimately scrapped. But we ended up seeing its DNA years later, with Microsoft adding tabs to Windows Terminal, File Explorer, and Notepad.
Nowadays, that feels far less likely to happen because most big changes aren't rolled out until Microsoft can make a big announcement out of them. In most cases, features are only made available when they're already fairly stable. It makes the Insider program feel like running the beta version of a web browser instead of anything in alpha or earlier, and it takes away a lot of the appeal.
Controlled feature rollouts are stupid
This hesitance is in part because Microsoft uses something called Controlled Feature Rollout (CFR) or A/B testing. This is when a product is rolled out in various forms to different subsets of users, allowing developers to gather feedback on the best approach. In theory, it's a sound concept, but the way Microsoft has implemented it greatly contributes to making the Insider program far less exciting, and frankly, more confusing.
As I mentioned at the top, the Windows Insider Program was originally designed for enthusiasts, people who are willing to sacrifice stability to get those new features. And the point of the different Insider program channels is so users could precisely choose their level of risk, as well as the breadth of features they get access to in return.
It makes no sense to ask users to risk the stability of their machines only to get nothing in return.
However, since the company feels the need to wait until it can fully announce a feature, these features are often fully finished (or finished enough by Microsoft's standards) by the time Insiders can try them out. A lot of the time, you'll see features roll out to Insiders in all channels at the same time. We've even seen some features debut in the Beta channel before the Dev channel. It makes no sense to ask users to risk the stability of their machines only to get nothing in return, or to get the same things they would get if they were taking far lesser risks in the Beta or Release preview channels.
It's even more ridiculous that Microsoft A/B tests changes across different channels, so it doesn't matter what channel you're in, you may or may not see a specific change. It's been months since Microsoft introduced animated icons in the Settings app for Insiders, but my PC in the Canary channel still can't view them in the latest build. Why does something like this have to be held back from users that are choosing to install unstable software precisely to try new features? Why A/B test a feature when half of the testers aren't even seeing any changes? What kind of feedback are Insiders expected to provide that contributes to development, when things stay exactly the same for them? It doesn't make any sense.
Most people don't care about Windows features
All of this makes it feel like Microsoft wants to make Windows feature testing more appealing to mainstream users. It can't risk rolling out overly unstable or early software because that lack of stability creates a big barrier to entry. Plus, by announcing features in a big blog post, maybe Microsoft hopes to get the attention of a wider audience and make the announcements themselves more exciting.
But the reality of it is, most people just don't care. Microsoft is never going to be able to make Windows features something that the general population cares about, and that's completely fine. It's not uncommon for me to go on Twitter and see a tweet from someone who has just discovered a feature like the emoji panel on Windows 11, something that's been around since Windows 10 version 1709 in 2017.
The new Canary channel is just what the Dev channel used to be, and that seems to be Microsoft's intent. It's not exciting.
This approach to revealing new features still isn't going to make them known to the masses, and it's only degrading the excitement of the Insiders who care. On top of that, I don't think having features available early to Insiders would make them any less surprising to the masses if they're announced later, because, again, most people don't follow the Insider program. These features can always be announced when the full update is making its way to the public, and they'll have just as much of an impact.
I do think there's potential for the Windows Insider Program to become exciting with the introduction of the Canary channel. If Microsoft treated this like a true bleeding-edge channel where Insiders get access to all the new features without A/B testing and controlled feature rollouts, it would be huge news. But as it stands, the new Canary channel is just what the Dev channel used to be, and that seems to be Microsoft's intent. It's not exciting. I don't have much hope that things will change, but I'd love to be proven wrong.