The big bet: Microsoft doubles down on services in Windows 8.1

The big bet: Microsoft doubles down on services in Windows 8.1

Summary: Why Microsoft’s Windows 8.1 interface announcement is only the start, and what's likely to come next.


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.

Topics: Windows 8, Microsoft, Microsoft Surface

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

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  • So what you are saying

    Is that Windows is turning into a dumb terminal for the cloud services which each iteration of the OS and we should be taking our business elsewhere if what we need is a proper OS to run our machines.

    Microsoft is chasing after Apple’s success in the mobile space and Google success in services, while at the same time ignoring what made Microsoft the company they are today, i.e. their customers. And for some strange reason they think they can “reprogram” their customer and developers base.

    It does sound like plan destined to succeed…not.
    • Not quite

      Microsoft got big by being on mainstream/commodity systems that are priced low AND by having willing developers. Same is true of Android in mobile. Has nothing to do with customers. People are rarely, if ever, brand loyal on commodity goods. People don't buy their next computer because it's Windows anymore- they do because their old programs likely run on it and they, more or less, know how to use the basic functions. People get "invested" in mobile are much less likely to switch platforms just like with computers.

      If you think Apple, Microsoft, or Google function to serve customers, as opposed to shareholders wallets, you really need to wake up.

      The beauty of Microsoft's positioning is that they can be the main source for three screens and the cloud while being essentially the same or very similar on the three thanks to the cloud.
      • I didn’t say “serve”

        I am saying they do no “listen to their customers”. They are positioning themselves for the past X years, so far all they managed to do is become irrelevant in every form factor but the desktop. But now thanks to Windows 8 and soon 8.1 they managed to make themselves irrelevant at that end too (Windows 7 still prevails).

        Microsoft has gone in a “throw against a wall and see if it sticks” overdrive mode of trying every business model out there but without retaining the one that brought them were they are today.
      • Sigh. The only way to

        Fatten the shareholder wallet IS to serve the customer. Have we really become this ignorant of basic economics?
        • Actually, let me amend that.

          My statement is true in a capitalist system. In a socialist system like America is becoming, you fatten shareholder wallets by establishing good political connections.
          • Even that won't work for shareholders, because, eventually,

            socialism ends up killing the economy, and it's businesses, and the investors.
          • socialism? ha!

            the America I live in is run by Wall Street, not socialists, not even social democrats.
        • Basics economics work the other way around

          whether you like it or not.
          • In what universe does your "basic economics" work the "other way around"?

            What are the economics principles for that universe that you came from?
      • But still...

        But still everytime Microsoft tells its customers what they are going to like they run into the ditch at an incredible speed, like with Vista and now Windows 8. It will be the same with Windows 8.1. Balmer will get up and declare it the best OS in history-- and if it isn't the consumer and the media are going to put it back in the hole it is now. Everytime they pull this and fail their shareholders have to be thinking, "Now what? Again?"
        • I would agree with you

          But Microsoft Only seems to do that every other OS. Vista was between XP and 7, and 8 is in between 7 and 9. I'm thinking Windows 9 will be awesome again, before they take a risk with 10.

          Anyway, I want more choice in using the desktop I want under my own terms, so I just upgraded my Mint 14 installation to Mint 15 with Cinnamon. I still dual boot with Windows 7, but I like 7, and I need it to play most of my Steam catalog.

          Did get World of Warcraft working under WINE though, which was a pleasant surprise.
      • Believe it or not, the consumer is king, and the shareholders are basically

        just investors.

        Investors don't get paid if a company doesn't have a big and sound customer base. The customer had better be the prime consideration when a company undertakes any project, otherwise, the investors won't come or will leave.

        Witness what happened with the original Windows 8, where customers and tech bloggers complained loudly. Microsoft had to listen, and so, they have answered the call, and hopefully the customers will be a bit more happy. A happy customer is one that brings in the money, and without that possibility of making the money, neither Microsoft nor Google nor Apple will bring in the shareholders. Remember that, the customer comes first, the shareholders come in second. It works the same in a mom-and-pop store, where, without the customers, the investors (the mom and the pop), won't be making any money, and so, they'll have to close shop.

        See how that works?
        • I actually agree with you for a change.

          Yes, at the very bottom of every business plan, you have to have happy customers that want what you are selling. The problem right now, as I see it, is that M$ needs us to buy what they want to sell. They would have a better business model if they sold what we want to buy. (In spite of all the things Apple does and says wrong, people do want iDevices.) M$ is listening, but they're goal isn't to make us happy, it is to convince us to do things their way.

          I understand they want to get in on the Apple business model, (They have essentially tried to get into every successful business model by copying it, but have only succeeded in a few.*) but they are messing up the current business model, (desktop and office,**) in the process. Desktop and small mobile devices are different tools for different jobs. Expecting them to work efficiently with the exact same interface is silly. I personally think that if they did the Windows 8 on phones and tablets, and allowed a choice of interface on desktops, they would be heroes right now. Every time M$ makes a change, they throw out the good stuff along with the bad stuff. They need to keep the good, and add more functionality and choices to it. If the new ideas are any good, they don't have to force them, they will catch on.

          *How many failed search engines have they pushed out? (I think it is actually only one crummy search engine with 5 different names. Maybe if they fixed the search engine instead of re-marketing it ...?) MSNBC, (what was that all about? Did they expect to become a television network?) How many failed Windows based PDAs and phones and music players have they stubbed their toes on? How many good companies and products have they engulfed and devoured, only to let die?

          Any company with less $$ on hand would have collapsed under the weight of so many business failures. I work in an all Windows shop, hang out with nerdy friends, and help people with tech on the side. I have never seen a Windows 7 phone or a Windows 8 anything. Who are they selling these things to besides their own employees and tech journalists?

          **Office mobile might work out for a lot of people. Maybe they are getting this one right? Time will tell.

          Sure, a business needs to take chances, but throwing M$hit at the wall to see what sticks is a pretty sloppy way to go about it.
      • Not Quite yourself

        Mobile users jump from OS to OS more often as they jump from one phone to the next. The biggest reason they held on to the phone and OS as long as they do is because of the the locked in contracts and if they upgraded their phone in that time they renewed the contract. Then you have the fact that the phones were not (and are not) available thru all carriers. Apple's OS is ONLY available on Apple machines. Google OS's are available on a lot of mobile manufacturers products (Google now owns Motorola) and now starting to show on several laptop/netbook machines. Linux is available on a few machines from select manufactures though Google's Android and Chrome OS is really a subset of Linux as is Apple's OSX. Most laptop/netbook/desktop machines are available with Microsoft operating systems with only the Xbox and Surface tablets being manufactured by Microsoft.
      • Both are good

        I would like to say both are good, android and window, sorry apple fans, i got no apple device. I will prefer android on my phone which do surfing, Fb, youtube, check mail and windows (surface pro) will do the productivity & heavy task. bringing phone, tablet and laptop is kinda bulky, and that is the reason i dumping my Motorola Xoom and giving Microsoft a try and I know i will not go back to android tablet anymore since my phone can do the android job.
        Willer Alpa
    • I doubt he is saying that...

      What I wonder is how adding more features and services would magically turn a full-fledged and proper OS into a "dumb terminal", care to elaborate? I won't hold my breath.
      • Maybe the fact

        They are trying to hide the desktop or moving to Office 365 subscription services may give you a clue. It doesn’t matter what is underneath when they make it difficult for you to use by covering it all with Metro crp. You still end up using your powerful workstation like it was a tablet, or even worse, like it was a Google Chrome OS.
        • your reading comprehension skills are close to zero.

          Or your hatred towards Microsoft is making you totally blind and ignorant. Probably you should come out and breathe fresh air.
          Ram U
          • And yet his message is accurate

            While you remain totally blind and ignorant as to what M$ has in store for everybody.
    • There is for sure some conflict for Microsoft

      But I don't see it as a failure. They keep on selling windows licenses, more updates, and when the cloud becomes (if ever) very big they can just say - hey we can do that.