Hurry up and wait: Why Microsoft's holding Windows 8.1

Even though 'rapid release' is the new war cry, there are good reasons for waiting two months, say analysts

Microsoft's decision to sit on Windows 8.1 for two months after engineers wrap up work was driven by the year's biggest sales cycles, analysts said.

On Wednesday, Microsoft announced it would release Windows 8.1, the first of what's expected to be annual updates to Windows 8, through the Windows Store on Oct. 17. The next day, copies of the updated operating system will hit retail, as will new Windows 8.1-powered devices from Microsoft's OEM (original equipment manufacturer) partners.

But with Microsoft still on track to hit its late-August completion date for Windows 8.1 -- at which point the operating system will be at what the company calls RTM, for "release to manufacturing," status -- some have wondered why the Redmond, Wash., developer plans to hold the update for eight or more weeks.

The questions are justified: Microsoft has made much of its accelerated development and release schedule for Windows updates. Those updates are far more than collections of bug fixes, like the now-discarded service packs, but include improvements, enhancements, and new features and software.

If Microsoft is pushing hard to launch major Windows updates each year, why waste one-sixth of that time sitting on them?

"This is all about protecting the back-to-school cycle," said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. "Even if this is a violation of the rapid-release concept, it's necessary. Back-to-school just hit the channel a few weeks ago."

As Moorhead explained, if Microsoft offered Windows 8.1 to current Windows 8 users as soon as it was finished, back-to-school computer and tablet shoppers would have heard of the update, and they might then be disappointed when they found no Windows 8.1 hardware available through retailers. And in an even more damning development, if they were really unhappy, they might turn that disappointment into purchases of products based on rival platforms, like Apple's OS X or Google's Chrome OS.

"People don't postpone back-to-school [computer purchases]," Moorhead said.

Wes Miller of Directions on Microsoft also viewed the delay between RTM and what Microsoft dubs GA (general availability) as understandable, but picked the holiday selling season as Microsoft's rationale.

"Some people thought that Microsoft would release [Windows 8.1] immediately, but I thought that a little strange," Miller said. "Microsoft classically releases products two times a year: back-to-school and holidays. But back-to-school isn't what it used to be. Everybody goes for the holidays now."

As long as Microsoft got Windows 8.1 into retail -- with its own and OEM hardware paramount -- sometime between mid-October and Black Friday (the bruising day of shopping that follows the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S.), it would be primed for the end-of-the-year sales season, Miller said.

The two months between RTM and Oct. 18 are needed by OEMs to test Windows 8.1 on current hardware and wrap up work on new devices that take advantage of the update, including the smaller-screen tablets it allows.

"There's a fair amount of new stuff in Windows 8.1, including support for Miracast and Wi-Fi Direct printing," said Miller, citing two examples of the new features that hardware makers will want to support.

Moorhead agreed that the two months won't be wasted, but are needed by hardware makers to conduct testing of the update on old and new devices. "Consumers will expect 8.1 to work flawlessly on all those platforms," he said. Minus that testing -- if, say, Microsoft had offered Windows 8.1 to all current Windows 8 device owners right after RTM -- OEMs might have been flooded with support calls if glitches surfaced.

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