Windows 8 Blue continues Microsoft's tradition of confusing names

Some people find the Windows naming system confusing, and Blue continues the trend. But examine NT's history and it all makes sense, if only on the Planet Zog.
Written by Jack Schofield, Contributor

The next Windows 8 update, leaked this week, is code-named Blue, and this may even turn out to be its marketing name. We already have Windows Azure, the cloud computing service, and Azure would both run and connect to Blue, perhaps followed by Windows Indigo and Windows Ultra Violet.

Or maybe Microsoft could release Blue as Windows 8 SP1, or Windows 8.1. That really would be confusing because the version name — as distinct from the marketing name — is Windows 6.3.

The one thing we know for certain is that it will continue Microsoft's record of picking confusing names for its NT (New Technology) line of operating systems. Sometimes deliberately.

Historically, Windows NT was developed by Dave Cutler, former star programmer with Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and developer of its VAX VMS minicomputer operating system. Indeed, wags duly noted that incrementing VMS by one letter resulted in WNT.

Dave's new operating system was targeted as a 32-bit replacement for the floundering 16-bit OS/2 being co-developed by Microsoft and IBM, in which case it might have been OS/2 3.0 NT. After IBM and Microsoft fell out, it was quickly rejigged as a Windows-replacement system instead.

Windows NT 4.
image: Microsoft

Microsoft made a hash of NT's version naming right from the start by launching it as Windows NT 3.1. This gave it parity with what was then the current DOS-based (old technology) Windows 3.1. It skipped versions 1.0. 2.0, and 3.0 before progressing to Windows NT 3.5 and NT 4.0.

While NT was matching Windows' numbering, the Windows team decided to switch from version numbers to years, so instead of Windows 4, we got Windows 95 in 1995. This was followed by Windows 98 and 98SE [correction] (Second Edition).

The NT team also switched to date numbering and grabbed Windows 2000. This left the DOS/Windows team with a quandary that it solved by releasing Windows ME (Millennium Edition), or Me. Happily, this was the end of the line. Smart companies were already migrating to NT4 and/or Windows 2000, and the rest weren't dim-witted enough to persist with DOS-based Windows forever.

Microsoft now needed to make Windows 2000 look a bit jollier and more like something consumers would buy, but Windows 2001 was a bit too close to Windows 2000. It therefore came up with Windows XP, which was short for eXPerience.

Windows 2000 followed NT 4.0, so it was really NT 5.0, and Windows XP became version 5.1 to reflect its new UI.

Windows XP united the market, replacing both Windows 2000 and Me. However, it was widely derided in the press and proved absurdly vulnerable to waves of malware, so it was as good as dead by 2003. Or maybe not. Microsoft patched it up with Service Pack 2 in 2004, and smart companies stuck with it until 2009-10.

The naming problem was now acute. Fill in the next term in this series: Windows NT4, Windows 2000, Windows XP. With no logic to follow except inconsistency, someone picked Vista. This was released as NT 6.0, reflecting the fact that Microsoft had redone the internal plumbing.

Enter Steve Sinofsky. He had run the Microsoft Office team, which had stuck with year names (Office 2003, Office 2007, Office 2010, etc). He decided to go back to simple version numbering, and since he was developing the version of Windows after version 6 (Vista), he called it Windows 7. Just don't look at the version number, because it's actually version 6.1.

screenshot_win8-01_page (200 x 112)
Windows 8.
Image: Microsoft

Windows 7 was a huge success, so the next version had to be called Windows 8. The introduction of a new touch-oriented interface (Metro, as was), programming system (WinRT), new software distribution system (Windows Store), etc, would have justified a new version number, so Windows 8 could have been version 7... .

But it wasn't. Microsoft simply incremented version 6.0 (Vista) and 6.1 (Windows 7) to 6.2 (Windows 8). This explains why Windows 8 Blue might appear as version 6.3.

All this makes perfect sense, but only on the planet Zog.

If Microsoft had called Windows NT 3.1 by its (more or less) correct name, NT 1.0, then everything would be fine. After v1 (NT3.1), v2 (NT 3.5), v3 (NT 4.0), v4 (Windows 2000), v5 (Windows XP), v6 (Vista), and v7 (Windows 7), then Windows 8 would be version 8.

Still, I won't mind having a Windows Blue version. It's no worse than OS X Ocelot, Podgy Penguin, or Hungry Horace.

Correction, 10.13am PST: "98SE (Special Edition)" corrected to "(Second Edition)".

Update, 3.47pm PST: In a post today at Microsoft's Official Blog, PR supremo Frank Shaw commented on "a set of plans referred to internally as 'Blue'. NB: Chances of products being named thusly are slim to none".

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