Are Microsoft 'updates' like Blue really more than service packs?

Are Microsoft's new, more rapidly delivered releases like Windows Blue and the Visual Studio 2012 updates just 'service packs in chunks'? One Microsoft exec explains why they're not.

"Update" is becoming an increasingly loaded -- and important -- word at Microsoft.

Windows Blue is an "update" to Windows 8, Microsoft officials stressed this week. The Office team is now using "update" to refer to collections of new features that the company is adding to a product or service (as opposed to "upgrades," which are entirely brand-new versions). The Microsoft Dynamics team has been using "update" the same way for a while now. And the Visual Studio team has been rolling out regular "updates" to Visual Studio 2012 for the past few months; the third of these, VS 2012.3, is almost done and hit the release candidate milestone earlier this week.

A number of Microsoft users have questioned whether these updates are simply new names for service packs. I've pointed out that service packs in Windows were supposed to be "just" bug fixes and not new features. But Technical Fellow and Team Foundation Server Product Unit Manager, Brian Harry, made this point more eloquently in a blog post from earlier this week.

Harry posted a very candid response to a tester's question about Microsoft's thinking around the new Visual Studio update process. The questioner asked whether these updates were simply Service Pack (SP) 1 delivered in pieces. Here's what Harry said:

"I also don’t think it’s 'SP1 in chunks.' The kinds of changes we’ve put into the (VS 2012) updates go FAR beyond what we would have historically included in a Service Pack. Service Packs had an 'aura' that they only contain bug fixes and while that was never strictly true – any time someone proposed a Service Pack change that didn’t smell like a bug fix, there was a lot of justification that had to be done. One of the fundamental mindset changes with the move from 'Service Packs' to 'Updates' has been that the primary value of Updates is new value – and sure we’ll fix a lot of bugs too, but that’s not the focus. Read my posts on the updates and you’ll that generally the bug fixes are a footnote. They are all about the cool new capabilities we are enabling."

While no one from Windows or Office has been anywhere near this upfront about what constitutes and update, I'd bet the thinking is similar, if not identical on those teams.

Not so long ago, Microsoft execs would talk about a major/minor product delivery strategy. Windows, especially, was all about delivering a big-bang release, followed by a more minor one three years or so later. A greater emphasis on services and devices meant that thinking no longer made sense, as many users now expect more regular, frequent updates.

Does Update = Free?

Pricing is the one piece of the new Microsoft "update" puzzle that is still unknown -- at least on the Windows and Office fronts.

With products like Dynamics CRM and Visual Studio 2012, Microsoft has been making updates available for free to users who purchased or subscribed to the latest versions of a particular software/service deliverable.

Microsoft's Windows Chief Financial Officer Tami Reller's pronouncement this week that Microsoft will be revealing Windows Blue SKUs and pricing before the end of May had a number of Windows 8 users up in arms. They immediately assumed that any mention of "price" must mean Microsoft intends to charge for Windows Blue. And a number of these users feel like Blue -- at least the pieces of it that have leaked so far -- are more product refinements and/or features that should have been in Windows 8 when it launched in October 2012 than features for which they should be charged more money. 

I've heard rumors that Microsoft plans to make Blue free for existing Windows 8 users. I've also heard rumors that Microsoft intends to charge existing users a "nominal fee" for Blue (the same way that Apple has been charging for updates to Mac OS X). I'm more inclined to believe it will be free -- especially given a late April "All Things D" laptop guide by Walt Mossberg indicated that Microsoft and/or OEMs had said Windows Blue "will be available to current buyers as a free upgrade."

(I asked Microsoft officials this week about the All Things D post and was told the Windows team had no comment.)

One more tidbit from Harry's post this week: VS 2012.3 is the last of the updates coming for Visual Studio 2012. The next deliverable on the roadmap is VS V.Next, which some tipsters have said is Visual Studio 2013. This is probably what I've heard called "Visual Studio Blue."

I'd think Build 2013 is where we'll hear lots more about this new version of Visual Studio, as well as about the evolving app-dev model designed to bring Windows Blue, Windows Phone and maybe even the new Xbox more into alignment.

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