Why is Microsoft keeping the final release of Windows 8.1 secret?

Why is Microsoft keeping the final release of Windows 8.1 secret?

Summary: For the first time in modern history, Microsoft is releasing a new Windows version that its traditional partners, developers and IT pros, won't get early access to. Why the change in policy? And will this decision backfire?

TOPICS: Windows 8

Windows 8.1 has been released to manufacturing.

OK, technically that’s incorrect. It’s actually been released to manufacturers, as in original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs. But it hasn’t been released to developers and IT pros, as was the case with prior Windows versions.

The initial reaction to the official news, even from normally sympathetic quarters, was scathing.

Why is Microsoft holding the final Windows 8.1 bits close and refusing to share them with its traditional partners?

I don’t know, and Microsoft isn’t saying. When I asked a Microsoft spokesperson for comment, all I got back was this bland non-answer:

Only sharing RTM code with OEMs is really about optimizing the overall experience for our customers—putting our hardware partners in a position to prepare the variety of new and innovative devices consumers and businesses can expect later this Fall just in time for holiday.  While our partners prepare their exciting new devices, we’ll stay close to them and continue to refine Windows 8.1 to ensure a quality experience at general availability for customers on October 18th.  This includes commercial customers with or without volume licensing agreements, our broad partner ecosystem, subscribers to MSDN and TechNet as well as consumers.

So what’s the reason? We’ll just have to guess. Here’s my list of possible reasons.

Getting the upgrade experience right is crucial.

Don’t underestimate the impact of this one.

The Windows 8.1 update represents uncharted territory for Microsoft. It’s a full upgrade to the operating system, with major new features that touch some of the most important low-level subsystems in the OS. But the plan is to make the update available as a free download to anyone running Windows 8. That raises the stakes substantially, especially for hardware partners who sold Windows 8 machines that are still under warranty.

If you’ve followed discussions in the Windows 8.1 support forums, you already know there are plenty of compatibility issues with the Windows 8.1 Preview. For example, according to one lengthy forum post, “Microsoft is actively working with Bluetooth manufacturers to improve a number of known issues with Bluetooth devices in Windows 8.1 Preview.”

Now multiply those issues by more than 10,000, which is roughly how many unique Windows 8 device strings there are out in the real world, according to one recent survey from AdDuplex. If those issues remain unresolved before general availability, the user experience will be awful, the support burden will be crippling, and the reviews will be scathing.

Windows 8.1 is more than just the client code.

Windows 8 was the first version ever to include tightly integrated services as part of the product. That means there’s code on Microsoft servers that makes it possible to sign in with a Microsoft account and sync settings. There’s more code that connects to SkyDrive for syncing files, and there’s yet more code that powers the Windows Store. And of course, there are a couple dozen “first party” (Microsoft-authored) apps.

All of those back-end services have legitimate dependencies on the client code. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect that development on those server-side pieces and apps will continue between now and the October general availability date.

Of course there will be bug fixes and updates for the client code. Windows development doesn’t stop with these milestones anymore, and Windows Update is routinely used to push out compatibility fixes and reliability updates. That’s perfectly normal.

Releasing to MSDN and TechNet is the same as releasing to the public.

I have little sympathy for Windows enthusiasts who feel entitled to early access to a new version. But developers have a legitimate need for early access to code so they can verify that their apps work as expected. The trouble is, anyone can sign up for an MSDN account and get enough key codes to activate a few dozen devices.

Microsoft and its hardware partners desperately want to control the publicity cycle. There are undoubtedly some surprises that will appear for the first time in the final code. Releasing that code to MSDN and TechNet would kick off a wave of reviews, which will of course be based on incomplete code (see the previous point).

Corporate customers and developers will be watching closely.

One of the biggest changes in Windows 8.1 is the move to a new rapid update cadence, with annual updates that introduce new features. That prospect is probably giving enterprise administrators nightmares. It’s causing developers to reach for the Rolaids as well.

The worst-case scenario is that those frequent updates will cause apps to break. If those are critical line-of-business apps, then corporate customers will reject the updates and Microsoft’s support burden will get worse, not better.

Microsoft says developers who build apps for Windows 8.1 can test them against the Windows 8.1 Preview, and they promise that the final code won’t break those apps. Developers have every right to be skeptical of those promises. This is uncharted territory for them, too.

What’s most disappointing about this whole scenario is both the lack of substantive comment from Microsoft’s management and the perception that they didn’t see this negative reaction coming. If you’re going to change the rules so radically, you really owe it to your stakeholders to communicate with them.

This is one place, ironically, where Steven Sinofsky’s influence is truly missed. He probably would have approved the decision to withhold the final code until the public on-sale date, but the reasons for the decision would have been outlined in excruciating detail in a 2500-word post on the Building Windows 8 blog.

Meanwhile, some of Microsoft’s core customers will be carefully watching what happens immediately after the mid-October release of Windows 8.1. If the transition goes smoothly, this minor uproar in the dog days of summer will quickly be forgotten. But if the update doesn’t go well, you can bet there will be plenty of people willing to say “I told you so.”

See also:

Topic: Windows 8

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  • I agree Ed

    We would have had a big wordy letter from SteveS on MSDN's blog site.

    As a developer, I just keep saying, "target Win 8.0 from VS 2012." If Microsoft is slow to get win 8.1 app uptake, they've surely factored that into the risks they know they're taking.
    • What is the real release??

      The first thing most will do after getting a new computer is go online and download the updates. What is going to manufacturing now is probably not the release that we will see when it goes public.

      Think of it this way, the RTM is just a seed and it is hard to tell what the plant will look like. The computer it goes in is just dry soil. Nothing happens until you add water. Only then will you know what the plant the looks like. The plant will grow very fast to begin with (almost instantly). It will take a few months to fully bloom and we will see the real beauty of the plant.
      • A plant?

        You could also end up with an unsightly weed.
        • One an's flower is another man's weed

          Did you ever see a field full of dandelions?
          M Wagner
          • Fallopia Japonica

            Precisely dear chap.

            I understand Microsoft's position here.
            I'll upgrade in October. Reading these pages over the last year shows clearly that the preview is not recommended.
          • As cool as that plant is the NSA plant is cooler

            It lets them slip in through the secret back door and steal information from you and your customers when you use Windows and other MS products. Do you customers appreciate that?

            One man's Fallopia Japonica is another man's secret spy data feed.

            1) From the horses mouth - http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/news/Press/2013/Jul13/07-11statement.aspx
            2) http://www.zdnet.com/dont-let-paranoia-over-the-nsa-and-tpm-weaken-your-security-7000019791/
            3) http://www.zdnet.com/nsa-said-to-have-paid-millions-to-cover-costs-for-tech-giants-in-prism-program-7000019807/
      • It might be a thorn bush too

        Let's face it, we have no idea what is going to come out of Microsoft. The McDonald's days are over. Microsoft is now more like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get. This is the new radical Microsoft which now switches the placement of the gas and brake peddle. We use to know Microsoft. Windows use to be familiar. It may totally change with any release. Microsoft no longer care what they break. They don't care about breaking our applications because Microsoft hates developers and we hate Windows 8. I wish the old Microsoft, the pre 2012 Microsoft, the one that gave us XP and Windows 7. I Microsoft does not give us the desktop back I hope another company will develop an OS which has a desktop because developers need the desktop to do their work. I am ashamed to be a Windows developer and will switch to Linux or Android or iOS or OSX or AIX or HPUX or CICS or Symbian or all of the above.
        • Seriously?

          What kind of a comment highlights how MS hates developers by stating they removed the desktop? Talk about a plant! Do you have a particular agenda? Certainly you haven't used version of Windows 8.*, because your comment is nonsense.
          • I've used Windows 8 on a Samsung 24 inch all-in-one since this April

            The first thing I did was to try out the touch screen and tried to operate as long as possible to see if it was possible to use touch alone with no mouse or keyboard and that lasted all of two minutes when trying to copy and paste a section from a web page on Chrome and found out that it is impossible whereas on Android and iOS, copying and pasting is supported on any application running on either of those OSes without the developer doing anything extra than a mouse and keyboard. This means that touch on Windows 8 has to be added to each application individually so expect to see that feature added to applications piecemeal. That also indicates that Windows 8 must be a real crappy OS, computer scientist wise that is because it is not modular. 8.1 will go nowhere if the old desktop and Start Menu come back. As far as Microsoft breaking applications, I know that from working at Novell. Microsoft had floppy discs and Novell but Novell had an actual network with all the modern management tools needed to run a corporate network and it ran software developed by Novell called Netware. Microsoft saw that that space was lucrative and wanted in but Novell got there first and getting there first gives Novell an advantage so what Microsoft did was to change their API so as to break Netware giving them time to develope their own solution and sell it under their brand.
            Tim Jordan
          • Microsoft has this attitude "How dare anybody develop on Windows."

            Microsoft, as in the case of Novell believes that they developed the PC market so the have the right to kill off anyone who enters it. Those developers who know only Microsoft and didn't study computer science at a University should know these stories and should study Linux just to be computer scientist and not just have the title of programmer.
            Tim Jordan
          • Did you just compare Win 8 to Ios and Android?

            I'm not aware of your particular scenario, but I routinely copy and paste text on Windows 8 using my finger. Although I mostly do this on a tablet because it is pointless to use the touch system on a desktop, for the most part, unless I am navigating a map or something. When you tap on text, handles show up that you can then stretch out to extend to other text. Hold your finger down on the selected text, and choose copy. Maybe you are speaking of within certain apps as opposed to from the browser, not sure.

            This can also be done on Windows Phone 8, which would be more of a true comparison to Android and Ios. I'm sure I'm not telling you anything you don't already know.
        • "No longer care what they break " ?

          If that's how you feel, better avoid OSX then too, because there's a REAL example of a company that "no longer care what they break".. In fact, after 15 years of loyal mac use, I'm switching to Windows 7 as soon as my current install of OSX is obsolescenced...
          Nick Ettema
          • Yet there are fewer "issues" upgrading OS X than Windows

            And you want to Jump to the less stable environment? It's your money to waste, far be it from me to stop a fool from losing money.
            Troll Hunter J
        • Welcome to Linux and Open Source tjordanchat

          Join the millions of new Linux Developers that have given up on Micro$haft.

          :) Your life is about to change for the better.
        • Thorn Bush

          Don't be upset ... just write code for the desktop or the web. Win8 doesn't even have to figure into this at all if you don't want it to. Unless you just have to chase the latest thing they're making in Redmond. As for myself I'm just focusing on those things and using the tools I already have. They can do whatever they want in Redmond, they just won't get any more of my dollars, that's all. There's a lot of upset over this one. Not sure why. We don't have to follow MS like they're out Imperious Leader or something.
          Max Peck
      • Chauncey?

        Chauncey Gardner, is that you?
      • Oh, brother!

        "Think of it this way, the RTM is just a seed....."

        And perhaps this seed shall be planted where the Sun doesn't shine.
      • Being There....

        Chance the Gardener: As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden.

        President "Bobby": In the garden.

        Chance the Gardener: Yes. In the garden, growth has it seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.
      • I don't think so!

        "The first thing most will do after getting a new computer is go online and download the updates."

        The technically literate will probably do so; the great unwashed won't. As usual.

        "What is going to manufacturing now is probably not the release that we will see when it goes public."

        So WHY is it being Released To Manufacturing???????

        One of the (how many?) bugs in Win8 is manifesting itself on my PC as we speak - it has frozen while installing update 9 of 13; but I'm not allowed to reboot or it may corrupt itself.....

        Fortunately am posting this on a NON Windows machine!
        • The Great Unwashed

          The technical literate may delay the updates. The great unwashed will download them and not even know they did.

          So WHY is it being Released To Manufacturing??????? Simple answer, a program needs to be installed on new computers that will download the final version of Windows 8.1