Microsoft reaches RTM milestone for Windows 8.1 update

Noted leaker Wzor posts screenshots of final signed build, claims Update 1 will ship in five weeks

Microsoft has reached a critical milestone for its next update to Windows 8, which is slated to ship early next month, according to reports.

Although the Redmond, Wash. company has not publicly announced that Windows 8.1 Update 1 has reached "released to manufacturing" (RTM), a term Microsoft uses to define code that's completed and ready to ship to OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) for installing on new devices, reports on The Verge and ZDNet this week claimed that the developers had given the operating system refresh the green light.

Those reports were at least partly based on one by notorious Russian leaker Wzor, who regularly gets ahold of early builds of Windows, including those destined for OEMs and other Microsoft partners. Wzor claimed that the RTM build had been compiled on Feb. 21, and was signed off Feb. 26.

According to Wzor and others, Microsoft will post Windows 8.1 Update 1 -- not an official title, as Microsoft has yet to disclose one -- on April 1 or April 2 on MSDN (Microsoft Developers Network), a subscription service where developers can obtain copies of Microsoft's software. The public release, said Wzor, is slated for April 7 or April 8.

April 2 is the more likely MSDN release date, as that's the opening day of Build, Microsoft's developer conference, in San Francisco. Likewise, April 8 is the likelier for the public launch, since that's the month's already-scheduled Patch Tuesday, when Microsoft ships its collection of security updates.

Microsoft has already disclosed some of the changes to debut in Windows 8.1 Update 1, including a general focus on making "the UI more familiar and more convenient for users with mouse/keyboard," as Joe Belfiore, the executive in charge of Windows Phone's and Windows 8's user experiences, put it a week ago.

But the company has not confirmed one change that could have the biggest, and longest-lasting, impact: A default switch to the boot-to-desktop option setting on non-touch hardware.

Some analysts have interpreted that as a major retreat from the "make-them-eat-Metro" strategy Microsoft applied to the original Windows 8 and the free follow-up of Windows 8.1, which launched last October. Both required users of the OS to pass through the Start screen and its colorful tile-based "Metro" user interface (UI); Windows 8.1 included the boot-to-desktop setting, but left it switched off.

Windows 8.1 Update 1 will retune the OS's hardware requirements. According to Belfiore, the update will run on devices with as little as 1GB of RAM and 16GB of flash memory storage space, a necessary change if the operating system is to become popular on the lowest-priced tablets or possibly on ultra-cheap notebooks.

Chromebooks, the inexpensive laptops powered by Google's browser-based Chrome OS, typically have as little as 2GB of RAM and sport 16GB of on-board storage. Microsoft has targeted Chromebooks in some of its "Scroogled" anti-Google advertisements, and while the notebook have sold only in small volumes so far, seem to have generated concern in Redmond. Few Chromebooks boast a touch-sensitive screen.

Windows 8.1 Update 1 will reportedly be delivered to users of Windows 8.1 via Windows Update, the consumer-level update service, and WSUS (Windows Server Update Services), the de facto corporate patching and update software, not through the Windows Store, as was Windows 8.1.

If Microsoft does release Windows 8.1 Update 1 on April 8, it will represent an explicit changing of the guard, as that date is when Microsoft will also ship its final public patches for the aged Windows XP, an operating system that the company has gone to great lengths to eradicate, so far with little success.

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