Consider the following: Internet Explorer 11 is available as a preview for Windows 7 or as part of the Windows 8.1 preview, but not for Windows 8. Similarly, PowerShell 4 will run on Windows 7 or Windows 8.1, but not Windows 8 — even though it will be available for Windows Server 2012, which is the same core code as Windows 8.
So does this mean Microsoft giving up on Windows 8? Um, no.
Windows 8.1 is Windows 8, as far as Microsoft is concerned. It's an update to Windows 8 that will be available in the Windows Store, free of charge. It has new APIs that aren't in Windows 8 that Internet Explorer can use.
The Start button is back. But that's just one of a very long list of changes you'll find in Windows 8.1, which will be available as a preview in a few weeks and will be released before the end of the year. Don't let the name or the price tag (free) fool you: this is a major update. Here's what's inside.Read now
Microsoft will port some — but not all — of those back to Windows 7 for IE 11; as we understand it, the HTML5 Media Source Extensions and Encrypted Media Extensions support that lets you stream Netflix in IE 11 without needing a plugin won't make it to Windows 7.
It has new versions of the controls developers built apps with too; the new alarms and timer app in Windows 8.1 uses the Windows 8.1 version of a control that's three times faster than the Windows 8 control on a low-end PC. "We could have done a lot of profiling of data, a lot of tweaking — or we could just upgrade to the version 8.1 control," program manager Steven Abrams said at the Build conference.
Couldn't Microsoft just port those APIs and controls to Windows 8 as well? Well, it already has — that's Windows 8.1.
Microsoft is betting that if you're prepared to install a new version of the browser and the updates to make it work, you'll be willing to do that as part of an update that also gives you the Start button so many people have been asking for and a bunch of new features.
Microsoft is also trying to put out a 'new version' of Windows in a year, rather than three, with a new version of the browser in a year rather than 18 months (which is how long it took to get from IE 9 to IE 10) — and as part of a continuous development schedule that put the usual SP1 contents into Windows 8 before it went on sale and has given us 700 improvements to Windows 8 since then.
Given that there are only so many hours in the day and only so many engineers on the team, it makes sense that Microsoft has decided to prioritise resources for Windows 8.1 and Windows 7 and create, test and support two versions of the IE 11 preview rather than three.
Keeping up with a continuous development cadence is going to require Microsoft to make a lot of rational decisions that don't make everyone feel warm and fuzzy. Similarly, when IE 12 comes along, I expect it to only run on Windows 7 and Windows 8.2.
You can also expect to see a significant push to get you to upgrade to Windows 8.1. The way Microsoft is trying to make that acceptable to end users and businesses alike is by making upgrading easier and promising compatibility. "Upgrading to Windows 8.1 is simple as the update does not introduce any new hardware requirements and all existing Windows Store apps are compatible," says Erwin Visser, the Windows general manager who handles the business side of the market.
That means that all Windows 8 devices will run Windows 8.1, that all Windows 8 Windows Store apps will run on Windows 8.1 (something they're working on but that isn't true in the preview), that drivers and desktop applications will work in the same way. And that upgrading to Windows 8.1 won't mean wiping systems and installing a corporate image and reloading your applications and data. Visser calls upgrading to Windows 8.1 much more like running updates or installing a service pack. And if you were planning on switching to Windows 8, just plan to switch to 8.1 instead.
To use the car metaphor that's so popular, in a year, the Windows team isn't rebuilding the car or even fitting a new engine; it's changing the tyres, swapping out the instruments on the dashboards, fitting a new car radio and tuning the engine control software.
It's worth noting that it's different for servers. A server upgrade is a major task and Microsoft doesn't expect anyone to upgrade their servers every year; the best they can hope for is that any new servers you put in place will run the latest version of Windows Server. Also, Windows Server 2012 R2 is a major upgrade from Server 2012, with a significant number of new features — it's a much more impressive and compelling update than Windows 8.1, ironically. Windows Server 2012 systems will be around for a long time so they need PowerShell 4 and its major management improvements like Desired State Configuration.
Microsoft hopes that Windows 8 won't be around for long after Windows 8.1 comes out. It hopes everyone using Windows 8 will upgrade, just as it hopes we're all using automatic updates to keep our PCs up to date. After all, we're telling Microsoft to keep up with Apple and Android; surely we want the new, improved stuff, especially as it's free with better features — why wouldn't you want that, thinks Microsoft. And if it can just get us to keep updating our PCs year after year, it will never have to deal with a decade of XP again.
With that combination of incentive and what we're telling Microsoft we want, why would it make sense for it to give us any reason to stay on Windows 8 when we've been so vocal about telling Microsoft to change it?