Microsoft fires off Windows 8.1, first round in fast-track updates

But businesses unlikely to bite, says Gartner, over concern about crushing tempo

Microsoft early today began feeding Windows 8.1 to customers already running Windows 8, making good on a bold promise to pick up the pace on the development and release of its flagship client operating system.

Shortly after 7 a.m. ET, Microsoft posted the free Windows 8.1 update to its Windows Store, the official distribution channel for the tile-based apps that have been a hallmark of the new OS.

Customers were alerted to the update's availability when they reached the Windows Store. "You can keep working while the update is downloading," the Windows 8.1 screen stated. "We'll let you know when it's time for the next step."

That was a good move, as Windows 8.1 weighed in at just over 2.8GB. On slower connections, the download could take hours.

Computerworld began updating several instances of Windows 8 when Microsoft made the update available, and encountered no significant issues. Downloads were slow, but not significantly so, and did not appear bogged down by overloaded servers, as is often the case with other operating system updates and upgrades, such as the annual iOS refreshes from Apple.

Microsoft will launch retail packaging for Windows 8.1 -- suitable for those who may want to upgrade from Windows 7 or perhaps even an older OS -- tomorrow. The Redmond, Wash. company will not discount the upgrade this time around, as it did a year ago when it launched Windows 8. Prices for the upgrades will be $120 for Windows 8.1 and $200 for Windows 8.1 Pro.

Also scheduled for Friday: Other OEMS' new PCs, tablets and 2-in-1 devices powered by Windows 8.1 and its scaled-back sibling Windows 8.1 RT.

Microsoft will start selling its in-house Surface line of Windows 8.1 tablets next Tuesday at prices beginning at $449 for the Surface 2 and $899 for the Surface Pro 2.

While Windows 8.1 includes a host of enhancements and new features, it's also a second crack at the OS, which was widely disparaged by reviewers and customers when it debuted last year. Many of the changes contained in Windows 8.1 are reactions to customer complaints, including a partial restoration of the iconic Start button and an option that lets people who want to avoid the tile-style user interface (UI), once called "Metro," by booting straight to the traditional desktop.

For businesses, however, the biggest change is not in the code, but in the faster release cadence that Microsoft promised, and then delivered on today.

While the company has not publicly confirmed that it will update Windows annually, most analysts expect it to do so. And that accelerated tempo -- three times faster than previously -- has enterprises concerned, say experts.

"There's a good chance that enterprises will stay on Windows 7 as long as possible," said Gartner analyst Michael Silver in an interview last week, talking about corporations' reaction to Windows 8's faster cadence.

Windows 8.1
Microsoft today launched the long-awaited Windows 8.1 update, once code-named "Blue," as a free download for current users of Windows 8 and Windows RT.
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