Microsoft always updates Windows between RTM and General Availability, when PCs with the new version of Windows go on sale.
Some of those fixes might be specific to the hardware and drivers of the PCs they're developed for, but often they are created because running Windows on new hardware shows different results and problems than on the current generation of PCs. Think of the way Intel Sandy Bridge Core processors needed an update to the dynamic timer tick code in the preview releases.
The updates wouldn't be the full new versions of Windows we're used to today
In the past Microsoft has passed those fixes onto the Sustained Engineering team — the same ones who will be delivering Flash updates and the monthly Windows Update fixes while the engineering team works on the next but one release. Generic updates that apply to all PCs have tended to arrive in the first service pack of a new version of Windows.
In fact they've been the backbone of what's in SP1. With Windows 8, those wider improvements are now available on Windows Update.
That's much faster and a good thing for people upgrading to Windows 8 on an existing PC. But it also makes it more plausible that Microsoft will deliver a new version of Windows far more often than we're used to. We've already argued that we might see Windows shift to yearly versions, and Mary Jo Foley reports sources saying a new release of Windows, codename Blue, could ship in 2013.
Apple sets expectations
Microsoft needs to update Windows RT every year, because that's the expectation Apple has set for tablet operating systems — plus WinRT could certainly do with more features. That policy shift will mean updating Windows 8 to match.
The updates wouldn't be the full new versions of Windows we're used to today but this a model Microsoft is already adopting for all its other software products that are available in the cloud. Office 365 gets regular updates while bigger architectural improvements come with a new version of Exchange that also incorporates the Office 365 updates.
The Windows equivalent could be cheap annual updates to Windows RT and 8 and then a full-price major new version every three or four years the way we're used to.
That change requires a different mindset from just doing the long-term, big-bang updates to a product, and it means having the development team much more closely involved. For the cloud products such as Office 365, Microsoft creates that involvement by making Exchange coders and architects part of the support team that gets woken up in the middle of the night if there are problems with the service.
Not only are they the best people to work on bug fixes but they're feeling the pain of bad code and getting a very personal incentive to write better software. It also makes sure that bug fixes get integrated into the product properly rather than left as a patch you have to apply manually to a server, or something that the Sustained Engineering team has to rewrite as a proper update.
Tested server image
In a cloud service such as Office 365, machines are updated regularly and if the bug fix doesn't get pushed to production and become part of the tested server image, it's going to get overwritten and the developer will get woken up in the middle of the night again.
There's no direct equivalent for Windows. Perhaps the developers could take a turn on the phone support lines or working with Microsoft IT to support internal Windows users? Certainly, taking the hotfixes developed for the Windows 8 OEMs and turning them into a proper Windows 8 update is excellent practice.
More frequent updates also means a balance between lots of small, useful features and more fundamental improvements in the architecture of a product. Those things take long-term planning rather than just figuring it out as you go along.
Whatever is in Windows 9, it's going to have to be exciting, but the annual updates need to be compelling as well. That's just as important as having the engineering ability to deliver more frequent versions of Windows, but we don't expect to hear about that side of things until well after Windows 8 is on sale.