Microsoft will not, contrary to some expectations, put a name to its next Windows 8.1 update, a decision that not only reflects a scaling back of ambition for the reputation-plagued OS but also indicates a different approach to all Windows' releases, analysts said today.
On Tuesday, Microsoft said that future feature updates, whether new tools or improvements to existing parts of Windows 8.1, would be parceled out in smaller chunks.
"Rather than waiting for months and bundling together a bunch of improvements into a larger update as we did for the Windows 8.1 Update, customers can expect that we'll use our already existing monthly update process to deliver more frequent improvements," said Brandon LeBlanc, a Microsoft spokesman who regularly posts to the company's Windows blogs.
Windows 8.1 Update 1, which shipped in April, was a minor upgrade from Windows 8.1 of October 2013; together, the pair were designed to make the original Windows 8 more palatable to traditional desktop and laptop owners who control their desktops with a mouse and keyboard.
But Windows 8.1 Update 1 will not be followed by an Update 2, as many had thought until recently. "Despite rumors and speculation, we are not planning to deliver a Windows 8.1 'Update 2,'" LeBlanc confirmed.
From now on, Microsoft will not even dignify its Windows 8.1 updates with a name, but simply toss them into the Windows Update machinery long used to serve up vulnerability patches on the second Tuesday of each month. Microsoft prefers the less-negative label of "Update Tuesday" for that day, but the rest of the world refers to it as "Patch Tuesday."
LeBlanc hinted that each month would include feature improvements and changes to Windows 8.1, not just the usual mix of security and other bug fixes.
This month's list of changes was short and consisted of minor improvements. The most notable wasn't even on LeBlanc's list: Newer versions of Internet Explorer (IE) will be refreshed next week to block outdated Java plug-ins.
The change from larger, named updates to more frequently anonymous improvements is remarkable for Microsoft.
As LeBlanc alluded, the Redmond, Wash. company has long waited until it had a substantial number of new features or improvements before releasing an update. That was especially true before Windows 8, when Microsoft was on a three-year release cycle for Windows and when it rarely, if ever, added features between iterations. The pace picked up after Windows 8's launch -- to the consternation of enterprises -- with Windows 8.1 out a year after the original, followed by Update 1 less than six months later.
Instead, Microsoft will, at least for the limited time between now and the debut of Windows 8's successor -- code named "Threshold" by company watchers and presumed to be named "Windows 9" in the end -- mimic the kind of development and release process practiced by browser makers like Mozilla and Google.
Firefox and Chrome use a rapid-release, schedule-drive approach, often described with an analogy to trains, where features ready to release board the current "train," and those that are not finished simply wait for the next scheduled release to leave the station. Microsoft already uses that method for its security fixes, with certain exceptions -- widely-exploited vulnerabilities are sometimes patched "out-of-cycle" -- and the new Windows process sounds similar.
LeBlanc characterized the change as a way to "respond more quickly to customer and partner feedback" and to "refine and improve Windows 8.1 in a more nimble way." But analysts thought there was more to the story.
With Threshold/Windows 9 approaching, Redmond is putting Windows 8 on a back burner, reducing the number and significance of improvements and new feature introductions to the latter.
"Absolutely," said Wes Miller, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, when asked whether Microsoft had shifted resources to the new Windows at the expense of the older edition. "You can see that in the things that aren't releasing for Windows 8.1."
By that, Miller meant the features -- notably a revamped Start menu that Microsoft showed off earlier this year -- once thought to reach Windows 8.1, but that have now been postponed to Threshold. Microsoft is saving those features for the next Windows as a way to differentiate the new from the old, and put the Windows 8 flop in its rearview mirror.
Not naming further Windows 8.1 updates could be interpreted as another way Microsoft is cutting Windows 8 loose by pushing the widely-panned OS into the PR and news background.
Miller and others also tried to read the tea leaves in LeBlanc's blog, and speculated that the feature dribble tactic may be the new black, and that major upgrades, both in the quantity of new content and how they're distributed, may also change as a result.
If extended throughout Windows' development and release cadence, a constant, train-style process would by its nature downplay major editions even more than has been the case since Windows 8's launch. That, in turn, would bolster the rumors that Microsoft will either give away Threshold to current Windows 8, perhaps even Windows 7 users, or heavily discount upgrades if, as many anticipate, it will be less an overhaul and more a mid-sized tweak that continues the backpedaling from Windows 8's touch-first focus.
But the experts disagreed on what Microsoft's frequent-update message means. Does it mean Microsoft has abandoned the controversial concept of mandating designated updates if customers want to keep getting patches, as it did when it set Windows 8.1 Update 1 as a "new servicing baseline," then gave enterprises just four months to deploy Update 1?
"I don't know for sure," said Miller. "But I read LeBlanc's blog as saying, 'We sure aren't going to do what we did last time,'" referring to the Update 1 requirement.
Corporate customers running Windows 8.1 -- admittedly a small group -- must have Update 1 in place by Tuesday or they will not receive this month's patches.
"The most significant thing is that while this change delivers some new features, it is not being forced upon enterprises in short order as the [Windows 8.1 Update 1] earlier this year was," said Miller.
Michael Silver, an analyst with Gartner, saw it differently.
"Microsoft wants to make Windows work like a phone [OS]," said Silver of the frequent and free upgrades for mobile operating systems like Apple's iOS. "They're not there yet. Certainly, they're hoping that enterprises can absorb [frequent updates] more easily."
But Silver believes that Microsoft will continue to set baselines like Windows 8.1 Update 1 that must be deployed to continue receiving security updates. Optional updates won't cut it. "Microsoft needs to have known configurations out there," said Silver. "It's hard to do that with optional updates, so at some point they'll have to push a requirement."
LeBlanc said that businesses would be able to pass on the monthly OS updates. "[These] will be delivered automatically via WU [Windows Update] and optional through WSUS [Windows Server Update Services]," LeBlanc wrote. "Enterprises can take the update anytime."
And the even-more-frequent OS updates won't eliminate the necessity for Microsoft to launch a successor to Windows 8 in its traditional fashion, Silver argued. "Every three years or so they need to make a splash," he said of the usual marketing blitz that Microsoft conducts to convince customers, consumers for the most part, to buy new Windows systems.
Microsoft still makes the bulk of its Windows revenue from sales of licenses to OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), the Lenovos, Dells and HPs of the world. Boosting hardware sales with a new OS has been a cornerstone of Microsoft's OEM strategy, and thus its Windows strategy.
That will be even more important this time around, as personal computer sales have been in a nine-quarter slump, with consumer sales hit most seriously. Revenue from OEM licensing of consumer-grade Windows, what Microsoft calls "non-Pro," declined 17% in the fiscal year that ended June 30, for example. During the same period, revenue from OEM licensing of commercial-quality Windows climbed by 12%.
The winners from Microsoft's switch to a constant update process, both analysts agreed, are consumers.
"Any acceleration in cadence is generally going to be beneficial for consumers," said Miller. "The biggest question is how enterprises will come to terms with consumer/BYOD devices coming in with more updated OSes than the business may have traditionally become used to."
Silver of Gartner was more worried about how enterprises would react to a constantly-in-flux OS if Microsoft continues the monthly updating after shipping Threshold next year.
"Microsoft needs some way to appease organizations that want to move quickly, [and appease] ones that just can't do it or won't commit to regularity," said Silver. "One size won't fit all."
The accelerated push of Windows 8 and 8.1 has already alarmed many enterprises, which are not used to such speed, and have no processes in place to handle continual change. By putting the pedal to the metal, Microsoft can only exacerbate the pain.
But in the end, organizations will have to find a way to adapt, disruptive as it may be; Microsoft certainly hasn't shown any signs of slowing down, or backing off its plans to crank out software, even if it's Windows.
Microsoft's intent, said Silver, is clear: "The goal is to be able to treat a large portion of the customer base more as phones than as PCs," he said.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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