Windows 8 is, as Microsoft likes to say, re-imagining Windows. With the Release Preview out the door and the final straight now ahead of Redmond, it's time to throw a little wild speculation into the froth of Microsoft-watching, as we like to do every now and then chez Simon and Mary.
What if (and I hasten to add, this is a big what if, and not a rumour or any whiff anything from the expanses of the Pacific Northwet) that re-imagining is much more than a new desktop and a new way of developing Windows applications? What if, instead, it's also a fundamental change in the way Microsoft builds and deploys its flagship software, delivering it in a (dare I say it?) more Apple-like way?
We all know the drill. Every three years or so, a new version of Windows arrives. Sometimes it's quicker, sometimes it’s slower. But it keeps on coming, on and on and on, tick, tock, tick, tock. It’s a cadence that drives PC renewal cycles and powers an industry. But it’s also a drag on innovation, forcing a drive to the lowest common denominator of plastic PCs and low cost components. If Windows is changing, then why not use those changes to change the entire PC industry at the same time?
So here's where we start speculating.
Windows RT is Microsoft's biggest change in the Windows 8 time frame. It's where Windows meets the soi-disant post-PC world of the ARM tablet. What it also brings is a big question mark, over how Microsoft is going to keep Windows RT up to date.
It's easy to argue, especially when armed with sales figures, that there isn't a tablet market per se, just an iPad market. And iPad users have become used to annual OS updates that bring new features and new functions to their devices. If Microsoft is to turn that iPad market into a tablet market, it needs to meet those expectations with how it provides updates to Windows RT.
If Microsoft is going to do that, then it needs to leave its three year OS development cycles far behind. There's no point in forking Windows on Intel/AMD/Via from Windows on ARM, so if we are going to get yearly versions of Windows RT, we're also going to get yearly versions of Windows – Windows 2013, 2014, 2015 – rather than the triennial jump to Windows 9.
And if Windows is going to be a yearly thing, the economics of the OS change hugely. Microsoft can't charge £100 for a version of Windows every year. But it might be able to charge £35. Or even get home users to sign up to an OS subscription, getting a new version every year for a simple up front charge. Windows would cost the same as a new version of OS X, and it would be easier for Redmond to sell more complex bundles – for families, and for small businesses.
Regular updates to the OS would also make it easier for Microsoft to move developers away from Win32 to WinRT development, phasing out Win332 APIs in favour of WinRT, even on the desktop, bringing those two very different parts of the Windows 8 experience closer together (and at the same time moving developers further away from old and insecure ways of application development).
Of course this is all pure speculation, even if it makes some kind of sense. I don't have any access to the folk thinking about the economics of Windows or to the folk thinking about how Windows RT will be developed and sold, and how that might affect the rest of Windows. But it's an interesting scenario to explore, and one that could just be possible, thanks to the underlying re-imagining of Windows in Windows 8.