What about Windows, Mr. Nadella?

Demotion of desktop OS to second half of mission statement leads some to wonder what changes are in store

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Some heard a call for even faster releases of Microsoft's products, including Windows, when Nadella talked about streamlining decision-making and taking fewer steps between product concept and launch. "My primary takeaway is that there is an absolute goal of decreasing bureaucracy and increasing speed," said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy in an interview last week. "We can safely say that they will be a lot quicker bringing products and services to market."

Microsoft has already taken major steps in accelerating its release cadence, with Windows 8.1 following Windows 8 by 12 months, Windows 8.1 Update following Windows 8.1 by half that. Many expect that the next iteration, reportedly codenamed "Threshold" and perhaps officially dubbed Windows 9 when it ships, will appear next spring rather than in the fall, as would be the case if Microsoft stuck to its usual three-year cycle for Windows.

And if Microsoft believes that Windows on the desktop and notebook is less important to its future, it would make sense that pricing would reflect the new outlook.

Some company watchers have speculated that Microsoft will offer Threshold to users of Windows 8, perhaps Windows 7 as well, free of charge, discarding its usual upgrade fees if not for everyone, then at least for consumers. "It's the next logical transition," said Wes Miller, analyst at Directions on Microsoft, in a recent interview. "They've done everything short of that, whether free upgrades for Windows 8 and Windows RT [to Windows 8.1] or Office built into Windows RT."

The mechanics of such a move would be awkward for enterprise customers, some of whom have paid the Software Assurance annuity so that they can upgrade the Windows client without additional expense. But it could be done, Miller said.

"For enterprises, it's up to Microsoft to figure out ways to make customers understand the value of why they have Software Assurance," he said, giving a nod to the other benefits besides upgrades that Microsoft sticks in the program.

But what's in it for Microsoft?

Putting Windows on equal footing with other OSes, for one: Users have been trained to expect free operating system upgrades on their smartphones and tablets, and with Apple's move last year to give away OS X updates, those on Macs as well. Windows on the desktop is the holdout.

And by giving away Threshold, Microsoft would expect to see a much faster uptake -- that's happened for Windows 8.1, and Apple's latest OS X, Mavericks -- which would be a boon to developers, who could then focus more on the latest rather than supporting the older editions. If Microsoft offered free upgrades to Windows 7 customers, it would also have a shot at preempting a repeat of the XP problem, where millions ran the aged OS up to and beyond its support lifetime.

Nadella's demotion of Windows in his email also matches the expectations of Threshold, which reportedly will not be an ambitious release on the order of Windows 8. Instead, the upgrade will continue the work started in Windows 8.1 to make the OS more palatable to long-time customers who interact with systems using a mouse and keyboard. If accurate, Microsoft's retreat from touch will confirm what everyone already seems to know, but that the company has refused to publicly admit: Windows 8's radical changes were a failure in the marketplace.

The Nadella strategy email can be read on Microsoft's website.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at Twitter @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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