The Windows 8.1 slow reveal has finally begun, with an official blogpost that details some of its user interface changes. What we've seen so far is a mix of new features and UI tweaks, with all the under-the-hood changes waiting until the Build conference.
But what we've been shown makes one thing very clear: the big bet that Microsoft is making with Windows 8 hasn't gone away, and it isn't pulling back from its devices and services strategy.
Despite what some pundits are saying, Windows 8.1 isn't a reversal of the Windows 8 changes. If anything, the Redmond giant is doubling down on that strategy, with new Bing services powering Windows 8.1's search, with SkyDrive powering its storage, with IE 11 using cloud sync — and with new devices rumoured to be following in the footsteps of the two initial Surface tablets.
There are also new Bing Windows Store apps as part of the standard install, and new features in the existing bundled apps.
Microsoft's transition from a software development business to a services company is set to be one of the biggest corporate changes we've seen, affecting everything about the way the company does business.
We're already seeing some of the fruits of those changes, with Office 365 gaining a million subscribers for its Home Premium consumer service (making it a $100m a year business straight out of the gate). And those changes are driving Windows, and the way Windows is delivered to users.
Forget the new start button (which is really just a different icon on the Windows 8 start tip) and backgrounds shared between start screen and desktop (ugly as that might be when you scroll sideways): it's clear that the most important thing about Window 8.1 is just how quickly it's arriving — and what that means for the way Windows is being developed.
During Windows 8's development we speculated that the changes Microsoft was telegraphing would mean a change in Windows delivery model, from a big bang release with many, many changes every three or four years, to an approach more like Apple's OS X and iOS model, with yearly, smaller releases that offered incremental changes.
That's what we're seeing with Windows 8.1; a significant update that adds new features and tools (and built in apps), as well as increasing links to cloud services. It's more than a service pack, but much less than a traditional, full new Windows release.
That change in delivery cycles means that Microsoft has changed the way it builds Windows. The information gathering periods that were a pause after Windows releases are gone.
Instead, Microsoft has switched to continuous development model, where continuous integration has meant regular updates alongside security fixes, allowing the company to move to a schedule of yearly refreshes for the base OS, while working in parallel on larger changes for future releases.
Remember, Microsoft already added most of what would historically have been in SP1 to Windows 8 between RTM and shipping.
It's a very different approach from the old Windows. It's meant a change in the engineering model, in the management model, and in the way Windows works with the rest of Microsoft (especially with Azure and with Bing).
This new model is something Microsoft has to do to have a chance of succeeding in the devices and services world. Dramatic changes like a new Windows have always met with resistance; you only have to look back at the lukewarm reception Windows XP received (let alone Windows 8 itself).
A more gradual release cycle, more than a service pack, but less than a whole new Windows, makes sense when you're supporting hardware and cloud services.
It's the process we're seeing with the new Office 365, where the cloud services get updated quarterly, and the Office 2013 client gets regular updates. We're also seeing similar changes with the way Microsoft is supporting Surface, with both Pro and RT versions getting firmware and driver updates as part of the monthly Windows update cycle, and with the planned updates to Windows Phone 8.
So what does this mean for the future? Monthly updates and patches for Window and for Surface aren't going away, and like Android, you'll get the option for seamless background updates of Windows Store apps.
Somewhere down the line, probably Summer 2014, we’ll get Windows 8.2, and then 8.3 and so on, until a major change in hardware, or software, or in the way we use computers, means the arrival of a Windows 9. And looking at both Intel's and ARM’s roadmaps, that's going to be a long way away.