The Xbox Insider Program Gets Even Weirder

Posted on January 30, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Xbox One with 27 Comments

The Xbox Insider Program Gets Even Weirder

As any Microsoft fan will tell you, the Windows Insider program is one of the big highlights of the past few years. So why is Microsoft so utterly screwing up the Xbox Insider Program?

As a refresher, be sure to revisit Next Up for the Windows Insider Program: Changing the World, in which I describe the inside story of how Microsoft established a system that makes Windows better while allowing its biggest fans to feel like they’re part of the team.

And remember how Microsoft’s Terry Myerson complained that the original goals of the Insider Program were too limited. “I thought you were going to build a community,” he challenged Gabe Aul at the time. “This doesn’t sound like a community.” Terry kept coming back to the term inside—as in, “these users need to feel like they work insideMicrosoft, are a part of team.”

That is not how the Xbox Insider Program works. Not even close.

To be fair, it used to be even worse. It began life as the Xbox Preview Program and, after a short period in which members could invite others, it was sealed off from the outside world. If you wanted to get in, tough. It was private.

With various changes to Microsoft’s corporate structure, Xbox has come under Terry Myerson’s More Personal Computing division. And last November, Xbox announced that it would rename this program to the Xbox Insider Program.

My hope was that Microsoft would simply make the Xbox Insider Program work like it does on Windows: Anyone and everyone can join, and then they can choose the rate at which they receive pre-release updates. On Windows, we have release rings like Fast, Slow, and Release Preview that determine the cadence of updates, for example.

At first, Microsoft did seem to indicate it would move in that direction, noting that with the Xbox Insider Program it would be “be open to all Xbox users” and “expanding to offer opt-in opportunities to provide feedback on Game and App Previews alongside System Update previews.”

But this is Xbox. And they just aren’t that open and transparent.

Xbox updates don’t head out to Preview users in a fair manner. Instead, they go out to a limited, unknown subset of Preview users first. It’s not clear how they are selected, or why. Then, updates go out to other Preview members over time. But it’s not clear what the schedule is. I’m on the Preview program, for example, and my Xbox One has not seen an update since December.

Last week, Xbox revealed how the Xbox Insider Program would work. Sort of. The only thing that’s really clear is that it will not work like the Windows Insider Program.

Yes, there are going to be multiple rings, just like on Windows Insider, and the ring you are in—Alpha, Beta, Ring 3, or Ring 4—will determine the cadence of the updates you get.

But Xbox Insider differs in that the firm is secretly judging your worth before allowing you to get updates. That is, you can’t actually pick a ring. You are assigned a ring. Secretly. And that assignment is based on your participation, and can change over time. Somehow. Meaning, those people who provide the most feedback will get earlier access to new features. It’s just not clear how or on what schedule.

Now, I know some of you are thinking this is fair. After all, why shouldn’t Microsoft reward users who provide the most feedback? I will counter that by noting that the absence of feedback does not constitute a lack of value, that my Xbox just working properly is itself a form of feedback that Microsoft can see with telemetry. In other words, if I don’t see any issues and still want to stick with the Alpha ring, or whatever, I should be allowed to do so. Again, this is how it works in Windows.

I will also argue that when it comes to enthusiasts, a far bigger percentage of the Xbox One user base is made up of such customers compared to, say, Windows. This audience is very naturally inclined to help make their favorite gaming platform even better, and not being 100 percent inclusive feels like a snub. Given Xbox’s issues competing with PlayStation, I will further argue that now is not the time for such a snub. Microsoft should, instead, just prompt Insiders for feedback, right on the console. That will scare away those who don’t want to provide such feedback.

Put simply, this is exactly the kind of system that Terry Myerson argued against when the Windows Insider Program was begin designed. It is not a true community but is rather a secret society that favors mysterious insiders over the broader body of users. And it’s unclear how or why those special few were even chosen to begin with. Friends of friends? Come on.

Microsoft, stop playing games with users and just open up the Xbox Insider Program for crying out loud. Really open it up.


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