Windows 8 and Surface: Why has Microsoft gone so quiet?

There are a lot of stupid Surface and Windows 8 stories about — and it's all Microsoft's fault.
Written by Mary Branscombe, Contributor on

If you have an MSDN subscription, you can get your hands on Windows 8 RTM today. Press F5 to refresh the page 8,888 times and it will appear, goes one joke making the rounds on Twitter, because no one knows what time it will be available.

And downloading RTM is the only way to find out exactly what's different from the Release Preview or what the desktop looks like without Aero Glass — because Microsoft hasn't been sharing many details since announcing RTM on 1 August.

Steven Sinofsky at Microsoft Build.
Windows chief Steven Sinofsky gave lots of details about Windows 8 at Build. Photo: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

The Windows RT version of Microsoft's impressive Surface tablet will be on sale 26 October when Windows 8 PCs ship. We have no idea how much it will cost, and rumours have put the price absurdly high and absurdly low by turns, with Microsoft saying nothing more than that it will be competitively priced.

The WinRT framework is supposed to be the same on Windows 8 and Windows RT, and we've been told all along that WinRT apps will run on both. You can call these apps Metro styled, Modern or, confusingly, Windows 8 apps. But WinRT is the clearest way to distinguish between apps that can use the nifty Share and Search contracts and those that can't.

About 90 percent of the WinRT apps in the Windows Store do run on both, which may answer a question I've been asking for many months. There's a subset of COM and Win32 that WinRT apps can access that we've known about since last September. Given that there must be some version of COM and Win32 in Windows RT to run the desktop and Office and desktop Internet Explorer, will apps using that approved subset run on Windows RT too?

I'm guessing the 10 percent of Store apps that won't means the answer is no, but I'm still waiting for an official response.

How many of the rumours and questions matter to people who will buy Windows RT and Windows 8? Directly, very few of them. Indirectly though, they affect the developers who need to build the applications that Windows 8 and RT have to have to succeed. If there's a background of confusion and frustration among more technical users it can easily filter out to the mainstream.

Look at the negative comments about Windows Vista circulated by people who turned out to have never used Vista — because when Microsoft showed it to some critics and claimed it was a secret new OS, they didn't recognise it and praised it to the skies. Devious? Sure, but as with libel and slander, I tend to think truth is a pretty good defence.

Information about Windows 8 has come from Microsoft in something of a reverse pyramid. For the press, the Build conference started with a full day of presentations and hands-on demos, plus a loan tablet to use for the week.

The conference sessions, the official blog and MSDN were crammed with information, and many people from the Windows team talked about the technology and principles of Windows 8 in detail. Over the past 11 months, the Building Windows blog has continued to publish in-depth and notoriously lengthy pieces about specific components, technologies and experiences. But the Windows team has said less and less in other ways.

Some journalists had the Consumer Preview early to prepare coverage, with detailed discussions of what was new and when it would be available. For Release Preview, there was much less time to prepare and much less opportunity to ask questions. For the RTM announcement, there was no notice at all and no information beyond the blog and press release that went out.

Microsoft might feel it's said everything it needs to say about Windows 8 and that the product can speak for itself. Not announcing a price for Surface RT means Microsoft can react to other products launching. If the iPad Mini is real, it might make more of a difference to the final price of Surface than the Nexus 7.

Saving the final look of the desktop for RTM gave the Windows and Office teams time to make their interface style match without pre-empting the announcement of the Office 2013 Consumer Preview or bringing up awkward questions about why Office and Explorer looked so different.

Microsoft seems to want to save nitty-gritty details about Windows RT for the launch of Windows RT and the next Build conference. But when Microsoft doesn't speak out, the rumours proliferate.

This level of attention is obviously good for Microsoft. Making people impatient to find out about your products? Great news.

Two years ago, even the most loyal Microsoft fan could hardly call the company cool. This week alone I've seen multiple stories saying Microsoft doesn't get enough credit for its designs, its workplace and its products. But I don't believe that there's no such thing as bad publicity. There's a fine line between anticipation and frustration, after all.

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