Microsoft's new, new Windows cadence: Once a year is not enough

What comes after Windows 8.1 Update? Sources say a second update is on its way, and that Microsoft's unified OS group is picking up the delivery pace.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Just a year ago, Microsoft officials were crowing about Windows' much improved delivery cadence. Instead of rolling out a new version of Windows once every 2.5 to three years, the team was now on something closer to an annual rollout schedule.


But the nine-month-young unified Operating System Group (OSG)at Microsoft is now gunning to go even faster.

Russian leaker WZor is claiming that there will be an update 2 for Windows 8.1 coming this September. My sources say that date could be August. In either case, a second update looks like it will hit just five or six months after Microsoft made Windows 8.1 Update available.

(Yes, by calling what was formerly referred to as "Update 1" simply "Update," Microsoft made it seem there would be just one update to Windows 8.1. It's not clear what this second update will ultimately be called. Update 2? Windows 8.2? No word so far.)

The second update may include a version of a new Start menu which Microsoft showed off during its Build 2014 developer conference in early April. But according to my sources, this second update is unlikely to include the ability to run Metro-Style apps in floating windows on the desktop.

Why -- besides the fact that these reports are not coming from sanctioned official channels -- are there so many uncertainties surrounding what's next for Windows?

In part, it's because the Windows team is attempting to speed up its delivery cadence yet again, my sources say. The powers-that-be are encouraging the Windows development team to see how much they can get done within a much shorter timeframe and then plan to deliver whatever is baked in the next few months. That's a much different way of operating from the carefully (overly?) orchestrated plan/build/test/deliver schedule the team followed in building Windows 7 and Windows 8.

The need for speed in "fixing" Windows 8/8.1 is no doubt also spurring OSG. Even with Windows 8.1 Update, which added features that help mouse/keyboard users better navigate Windows 8, many business customers still don't find Microsoft's latest version of Windows familiar and compelling enough for mass adoption.

Terry Myerson, the OSG Executive Vice President, denied that he's trying to put the Windows team on the same delivery track that the Windows Phone team has been for the past year. In calendar 2013, the Windows Phone team rolled out three updates to Windows Phone 8. Rumor has it the Windows Phone team is planning to deliver at least two updates to Windows Phone 8.1 in calendar 2014.

Myserson acknowledged in an interview I had with him earlier this month that he and his team are sensitive to the needs of different constituencies. Business users may not want or be able to handle new updates to Windows every six months. (In a nod to this business/consumer split, Microsoft recently capitulated and gave IT users 120 days -- rather than the originally announced 30 -- to roll out Windows 8.1 Update.)

Back to the Windows roadmap. What comes after Windows 8.1 Update 2 is even more murky at this point. Last I heard from my contacts, Microsoft was hoping/planning to get Windows 9 finished by spring 2015. The aforementioned Metro-Style apps floating in desktop windows -- something Microsoft execs also showed off in early form at Build 2014 -- is supposedly one of the features likely to be part of Windows 9.

WZor claims that the Start button that Microsoft added to Windows 8.1 will work differently with Windows 9. For users with touch-enabled devices, the Start button will behave differently than it does for those with non-touch devices, WZor said.  I don't have any information on this rumor at this time.

WZor also claims that Microsoft is tinkering with the business model for Windows and may make some kind of base-level version of Windows available for free for everyone, but require a subscription to "turn on" the full set of capabilities and features, similar to the way Microsoft requires Office on iPad users to have an Office 365 subscription to do more than just the simplest of tasks with the free version. I haven't heard anything specifically about this from my contacts (yet).

What I did hear last year was Microsoft was planning to realign the set of Windows SKUs that it will offer OEMs and users. A single "Modern" consumer SKU would work on Windows Phones, as well as smaller tablets. Myerson didn't deny this was the plan during my interview with him. He strongly hinted that this new SKU won't include a Desktop allowing legacy apps to run. This SKU is unlikely to be Windows RT as we know it; Myerson would only say Microsoft plans to offer a version Windows that will run on ARM. I believe this SKU will be free.

Other Windows 9 SKUs are expected to include the Desktop and are unlikely to be free, according to what I heard from my sources last year.

The key thing to keep in mind about how Microsoft is thinking about OS delivery cadence, going forward, is that the company is working simultaneously on smaller, nearer-term updates, as well as bigger, longer-term ones. With Windows, Windows Phone and the Xbox One operating systems all working together in a single group (finally), further alignment of OS rollouts and subscription-based business models seems like it should be in the cards.

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