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Microsoft move hints at the death of Windows service packs

Issues Windows 8 update after RTM, before launch, emulates Apple and Google

October 11, 2012 06:32 AM ET

Computerworld - Microsoft's first-time move Tuesday to update Windows 8 before the OS launches is a sign of the company's continued edging toward practices long held by rivals Apple and Google, analysts said today.

On Tuesday, alongside the usual Patch Tuesday security updates, Microsoft shipped four non-security updates specific to Windows 8, which doesn't go on sale until Oct. 26.

Steven Sinofsky, the executive who leads the Windows division, said that the biggest of the updates -- a massive 170MB download for Windows 8 x64 -- targeted performance, power management, media playback and compatibility issues which company developers uncovered and/or addressed since early August, when Microsoft tagged Windows 8 with the RTM, or "release to manufacturing," label.

In Microsoft's terminology, RTM designates the point at which it considers the code completed, and ready to ship to computer makers for installing on new PCs.

Microsoft has never updated a version of Windows between RTM and when the OS hits retail and PCs powered by it reach stores.

"Very interesting," said Jason Miller, manager of research and development at VMware, and a frequently-cited source on patching. "We've never seen them do something like this before. They're definitely changing how they do things to add more features on the fly."

Others also applauded. Andrew Storms, director of security operations at nCircle Security, called it a "welcome change" and added, "End users should be happy knowing they are going to get the latest advancements in their Windows 8 install."

Typically, Microsoft has reserved most major changes for what it calls "Service Packs," collections of previously-released security patches, non-security bug fixes, and new features or improvements of existing ones. Service packs are usually issued every 18 months or so; Windows 7, for example, has seen only one such upgrade in the three years since its Oct. 2009 launch, Service Pack 1 (SP1), which shipped in Feb. 2011.

"There are always things you were aware of as you develop that you deferred fixing, because if you didn't you'd never finish the software," said Michael Cherry, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft and former Microsoft program manager. "Because there was no mechanism for releasing them as they were finished, you had to wait for a service pack."

In a Tuesday post to the "Building Windows 8" blog, Sinofsky said as much.

Sinofsky described how in the past, Microsoft would make scores of changes to accommodate new PCs that computer makers had created, but that previously it had no way to distribute the resulting improvements to all users, including those running the new OS on older systems.

"During the final months of Windows 8 we challenged ourselves to create the tools and processes to be able to deliver these 'post-RTM' updates sooner than a service pack," Sinofsky wrote. "By developing better test automation and test coverage tools ... Windows 8 will be totally up to date for all customers starting at General Availability."

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