Within moments of Microsoft revealing that the Windows "Blue" update to Windows 8 would be available for free to all existing Windows 8 users, a barrage of questions began pounding the Hardware 2.0 mailbox, most of them basically asking one thing:
Does this means that Windows 8.1/"Blue" is nothing more than a service pack?
I think that things are not as clear cut as that, and I believe that Windows "Blue" represents an effort on Microsoft's part to change the way we think of Windows and its update cycle.
One idea that we can dispel for sure is any notion that Windows "Blue" is a "new" version of Windows. It is not, and if nothing else, the version number being kicked up to 8.1 should remind us of that. Even Microsoft is referring to this release as "Windows 8.1". There's no way Microsoft could push a new version out of the door yearly.
So, if it's not a new version, what is it?
I see several possibilities as to what it means.
The first is that "Blue" is a service pack, just like the myriad service packs that Microsoft has previously released for Windows. While the primary purpose of service packs is to roll updates and bug fixes into a single download, Microsoft has also shown that it is willing to put operating system tweaks and refinements into service packs.
Businesses in particular seem to like service packs because they're a sign that the operating system has attained a level of maturity that makes it ready for the workplace.
Personally, I think that the idea of the service pack is somewhat outdated. I see little benefit in promoting a release that consists of little more than previously released bug fixes.
Another option is that "Blue" is a redesigned version of Windows 8, and that the update will bring to the table more refinements and tweaks than one would expect from a regular service pack, and that it is an attempt to address the issues that have been raised by Windows 8. It's interesting that Microsoft itself is referring to "Blue" as Windows 8.1, and not as a service pack for Windows 8.
This is not new, and it is how Microsoft refers to Windows Phone updates. For example, the Windows Phone 7.5 "Mango" release was considered part of the Windows Phone 7 family.
This is an interesting approach, because it allows Microsoft to incrementally improve on its software, while at the same time generating more buzz for incremental releases than a service pack could generate. It also means that bad situations — such as the one Microsoft found itself in with Windows Vista — can be sorted out much quicker.
Another possibility here is that Microsoft is keen to rebrand Windows 8 in an attempt to give the new release a new feel, and hopefully brushing under the carpet the bad feeling that the removal of the Start button and making users boot into the Metro/Modern UI Start Screen.
There's some logic to this. Windows Vista never managed to shake free of the bad cloud that the initial release generated, despite most of the issues plaguing early adopters being fixed by the time the first service pack hit the scene. As a result of this, the operating system failed to gain good traction during its lifecycle.
A bad vibe can stick with a product throughout its entire lifespan. Microsoft now knows this, and it could be keen to avoid this happening with Windows 8 by rebranding the next update as a new release, no matter how thin that veneer might be.
There's another possibility that goes hand in hand with rebranding, and that is that Microsoft is trying to change the way we think of new version releases for Windows, possibly in an attempt to move to a yearly update cycle, and maybe even to shift forward to a subscription-based system, where we pay to use Windows as we use it, rather than paying for monolithic releases every few years.
While consumers seem to prefer monolithic software releases — it gives them the option to pay for a release and use it until the hardware moves on to the point where it no longer supports it — software companies aren't so keen on them. It's getting harder and harder to convince customers, consumers and enterprise users alike, that they need to buy the newest releases. Subscriptions also keep the cash rolling in on a regular basis, and take the pressure off having to constantly innovate to keep the interest of potential buyers.
Adobe has already decided to take its Creative Cloud suite in this direction, and there's been chatter that Microsoft is considering the same.
So, is Windows 8.1 a service pack, a redesigned version of Window 8, or rebranding on Microsoft's part? Personally, I think it is Microsoft taking what would normally be a service pack release and using it as an opportunity to redesign and rebrand Windows 8, while at the same time trying to change the way we look at Windows releases.
Windows 8 is Microsoft changing the way it does business. Some of those changes — such as ditching the Start menu and dumping people into the Start Screen — may have been a change too far, while others, such as introducing an app store, were a step in the right direction. By revamping the concept of service packs, Microsoft is giving itself some leeway whenever it tries to push one change too many onto users.