How different the forks will be is unknown -- Microsoft may not know itself at this point -- but the fragmentation could be of concern to developers and support teams, with each group unsure how many Windows 10 users are on a specific branch and even ring at any given moment, and thus hesitant about supporting a moving target, or uncertain about questions or problems that may pertain only to one ring or branch, but not later releases.
Historically, Windows has had both the reality and the appearance of similar forks, what with the various editions -- Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8.1 -- and subsets within those editions, like Windows 7 Service Pack 1 (SP1) and Windows 8.1 Update. But with the exception of Windows 8 versus Windows 8.1, internally the differences have been on a patch and bug-fix level, not on a feature, UI or even API (application programming interface) level, as Windows 10 promises.
But analysts downplayed any problem that the plethora of Windows 10 releases may present.
"There are likely to be at least six" rings, said Chen. "A fast and a slow for each of Insider, CB, and CBB. But I don't believe this will cause fragmentation in Windows beyond what exists today. With the classic Windows releases, you could still have people on different versions, such as service packs or point releases like 8/8.1.
"There's really only four rings that matter, CB and CBB, and a business may only be concerned about CBB, so that's effectively two rings to manage, not a big change from what they support today," Chen added.
Frank Gillett of Forrester Research agreed. "It won't be nearly as bad as a decades-long trail of multiple Windows versions or the crazy variety of Android forks in the world," he said.
No Android problems, most foresee
Android has been the poster child of fragmentation, not because of its release tempo -- Google issues major new editions annually, on the same pace as Apple does iOS -- but because carriers update existing handsets very slowly or not at all. Android versions 4.1 through 4.3, aka "Jelly Bean," which were released between July 2012 and July 2013, currently account for 38 percent of all editions, while October 2013's Android 4.4 (KitKat) powers 39 percent, and the newest, November 2014's Android 5.0 and March 2015's 5.1 (Lollipop), have a combined 12 percent share.
(On the other hand, September 2014's iOS 8 powers 84 percent of all of Apple's mobile devices, with just 14 percent running 2013's iOS 7.)
"This will not happen to Windows. Android fragmentation is a very different problem," said Chen. "There you have OEMs customizing and developing Android that they get from Google upstream for their devices, and they control the development and release downstream. Windows on PC does not follow the mobile model. Every Windows machine gets largely the same Windows direct from Microsoft, any OEM customizations are only on the surface, and all the updates are controlled by Microsoft."
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