Windows 8.1: What's in a name (and why it matters)

The name for this summer's first rapid-response OS upgrade raises questions on future support, licensing

The more information that leaks about Windows 8's expected summer upgrade, dubbed "Blue" by Microsoft, the more questions that pop up, analysts said today.

And with very few exceptions, customers don't have answers.

The latest tidbit about Windows Blue -- disclosed earlier this week -- was that the upgrade would be named "Windows 8.1," a convention reminiscent of rival Apple's system of numbering its versions of OS X as, for example, 10.7 for Lion, 10.8 for Mountain Lion.

Apple then adds a third number to signal each update. Mountain Lion, for instance, is currently at 10.8.3, meaning it has been updated three times since its July 2012 debut.

Calling the first upgrade Windows 8.1 may not seem important, but to analysts well-versed in Microsoft-ese, names matter.

"How you use numbers in naming conventions is important," argued M3 Sweatt, who works in a Microsoft group aimed at improving partner and customer satisfaction, on Twitter Tuesday.

The experts agreed: Microsoft's licensing policies, but more importantly its support practices, are linked to names, or more specifically, name changes.

As soon as an enterprise places newly-named Windows Server software into production, it must also immediately update all CALs (Client Access Licenses), the rights required for individual client PCs -- desktops, notebook, tablets -- said Wes Miller of Directions on Microsoft.

That's why he and others at the research firm believe that Microsoft will not dare to name an upgraded server OS something like "Windows Server 2013," but will instead stick with "Windows Server 2012" as the name even after the code also gets a Blue project refresh this summer. The most likely moniker is Windows Server 2012 R2, the analysts said, because the "R2" designation has been used before by Microsoft and doesn't trigger the new-CAL requirement.

On the desktop, licensing has less effect, mainly because relatively few enterprises carry Software Assurance, the annuity plan that provides rights to future upgrades, on the client OS. But there may be some support fallout from a name change.

Microsoft has historically issued Service Packs (SP) for Windows, collections of bug fixes that sometimes also include new features. Those SPs always started a clock that gave customers 24 months to upgrade from the prior version -- either the original, termed RTM, for "release to manufacturing," or an earlier service pack -- to the new SP.

In fact, Microsoft will do just that next week, as it retires Windows 7 RTM and supports only Windows 7 SP1, the upgrade that launched in early February 2011.

But SPs are apparently persona non grata, to be replaced by Blue and Microsoft's plan to pick up the release pace.

So what happens for support? No one knows.

"With Blue, does that mean to get support on Window 8, I have to have Blue?" asked Michael Cherry, also of Directions on Microsoft, referring to the code name for what will be Windows 8.1.

Rob Helm, another Directions on Microsoft analyst, reeled off more questions that Windows 8.1, nee Blue, poses.

"Is the new release going to be required for support, like service packs have been?" Helm asked. "Will Microsoft restart the [10-year] support clock? Will Blue expire from support the same day as Windows 8, or will it expire a year later than Windows 8?"

Historically, Microsoft has supported Windows for at least 10 years, with any service packs hewing to the original deadline. In other words, while Windows 7 SP1 appeared 16 months after Windows 7 RTM, the former will fall off the support list Jan. 14, 2020, the same date originally pegged for soon-to-be-retired Windows 7 RTM.

But the new and faster Windows development may not observe the older rules, which is what concerns Cherry, Helm and Miller.

"And what apps will be able to run on Blue?" Helm wondered. "Will some come out that won't run without Blue? Microsoft's done that at times with service packs."

Questions, it seems are plentiful, but answers are not.

"This is all tied together," said Cherry. "And there are no answers."

Microsoft has been mum, even though it has acknowledged Blue and said it will now pursue a faster development and upgrade cadence, one that the company's top public relations executive called "continuous" in a blog post last week.

So enterprises remain in the dark about Windows' accelerated development. Microsoft's core constituency and its most important revenue source, business, already has reason to worry about the faster pace: By nature, corporations loath operating system changes because of their cost and potential for disruption.

To be fair, few companies have adopted Windows 8 for anything more than small-scale pilot programs, and today's mystery could well be solved tomorrow. And psychologically, "Windows 8.1" will go down easier than would have "Windows 9." Still, the pattern of Microsoft rushing where enterprises fear to tread is troubling.

So much so that Microsoft may find it hard selling the quicker tempo to enterprises. "They're going to [be] under pressure to keep corporate customers happy, and still have a viable consumer OS that keeps up with the fad of the year," said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, in an interview last week. "It's going to be really tough."

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

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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