Microsoft may revert to separate release schedules for consumer and business versions of Windows, the company's top operating system executive hinted this week.
At a technology symposium hosted by financial services giant Credit Suisse, Terry Myers acknowledged the operating system adoption chasm between consumers and more conservative corporations. Myers, who formerly led the Windows Phone team, was promoted in July to head all client-based OS development, including that for smartphones, tablets, PCs and the Xbox game console.
"The world has shown that these two different customers really have divergent needs," said Myers Wednesday, according to a transcript of his time on stage. "And there may be different cadences, or different ways in which we talk to those two customers. And so [while Windows] 8.1 and [Windows] 8.1 Pro both came at the same time, it's not clear to me that's the right way to serve the consumer market. [But] it may be the right way to continue serving the enterprise market."
Myers' comment hinted at a return to a practice last used in the early years of this century, when Microsoft delivered new operating systems to the company's consumer and commercial customers on different schedules.
Before 2001's arrival of Windows XP -- when Microsoft shipped consumer and business versions simultaneously -- Microsoft aimed different products, with different names, at each category. In 2000, for example, Microsoft delivered Windows ME, for "Millennium Edition," to consumers and Windows 2000 to businesses. Prior to that, Windows 95, although widely used in businesses, was the consumer-oriented edition, while Windows NT 4.0, which launched in 1996, targeted business PCs and servers.
The update/upgrade-acceptance gap between consumers and businesses reappeared after Microsoft last year said it would accelerate its development and release schedule for Windows, then delivered on the first example of that tempo, Windows 8.1, just a year after the launch of its predecessor.
Enterprises have become nervous about the cadence, say analysts. Businesses as a rule are much more conservative about upgrading their machines' operating systems than are consumers: The former must spend thousands, even millions, to migrate from one version to another, and must test the compatibility of in-house and mission-critical applications, then rewrite them if they don't work.
That conservative approach to upgrades was a major reason why Windows XP retained a stranglehold on business PCs for more than a decade, and why Windows 7, not Windows 8 or 8.1, has replaced it.
It's extremely difficult to serve both masters -- consumer and commercial -- equally well, said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. "No one has yet mastered being good on enterprise and good on consumer," said Moorhead in an interview. "[The two] are on completely different cycles."
In October, outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer dismissed concerns over the faster pace. At a Gartner Research-sponsored conference, when analyst David Cearley noted, "Enterprises are concerned about that accelerated delivery cycle," Ballmer simply shook his head.
"Let me push back," said Ballmer, "and say, 'Not really.' If our customers have to take DVDs from us, install them, and do customer-premise software, you're saying to us 'Don't upgrade that software very often ... two to three years is perfect.' But if we deliver something to you that's a service, as we do with Office 365, our customers are telling us, 'We want to be up to date at all times.'"
Another Gartner analyst, Michael Silver, countered Ballmer's claim. "Organizations need to be afraid of what's to come," Silver said at the time. "If [companies] get on this release train, Microsoft will take them where [Microsoft] wants to go, or [Microsoft] will run them over."
Myers' hint of separate release trains, to use Silver's terminology, may be a repudiation of Ballmer's contention. Or not.
His statement of, "It may be the right way to continue serving the enterprise market," could be interpreted to mean that Microsoft will maintain an accelerated tempo for business versions of Windows -- one faster than the three years between upgrades that the company has used in the past -- and speed up Windows updates to consumers even more.
"The consumer really is ready for things to be upgraded on their own," Myers said.
"Microsoft's biggest strategic question is, 'Am I an enterprise company or a consumer company, or both?" said Moorhead. "Something has to break here."
And one crack might be, according to Myers, a separation of consumer and commercial on Windows.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is email@example.com.