Microsoft votes for free Windows 8.1, collects kudos

If Microsoft proves annual updates are easy to deploy, OS could get its chance in the enterprise

Microsoft today announced that Windows 8.1, the update later this year for Windows 8, will be free to current users of the operating system, confirming analysts' expectations.

Analysts applauded the decision to give away the update. "Making the upgrade free will make the ecosystem and installed base very happy," said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, in an email Tuesday.

Tami Reller, CFO of the Windows division, made the announcement in prepared remarks at the JP Morgan Technology, Media & Telecomm Conference today. "Windows 8.1 will be delivered as a free update to Windows 8 and Windows RT," said Reller. "It will be easy to get right from the Windows Start Screen from the Windows app store."

It's unknown whether Microsoft will use the "Windows 8.1" name for the simultaneous update to Windows RT, the tablet-centric offshoot designed for devices running ARM processors. Microsoft did not reply to questions about the naming of the Windows RT update.

Reller declined to provide additional information on the update, such as the timing of the final release or specifics on Windows 8.1's contents.

A public preview will ship during BUILD, Microsoft's developers conference, which will run June 26-28 in San Francisco. That preview will also be distributed through the Windows Store.

Earlier this week analysts said that Microsoft had little choice but to offer the update free of charge.

Today, industry experts praised the gratis status of Windows 8.1 as well as the numbering choice.

"Microsoft made a good move on the naming and with the free upgrade," said Moorhead. "Calling it 8.1 signals that it's an improvement on its predecessor, not a sea change. This sets the right expectations."

However, Michael Silver of Gartner said Microsoft should quickly answer several up-in-the-air questions that enterprises have about Windows 8.1.

"We don't yet know what they're going to do to the desktop," said Silver, who also ticked off support -- specifically, how long Microsoft will support each of the expected annual updates. Will Windows 8.1 share the support lifecycle of its parent, Windows 8 -- which won't retire until January 2023 -- or have its own schedule? "Will they support 10 different updates?" Silver wondered.

But the fact that Microsoft will make good on its promise to shift to a faster release tempo had Silver more optimistic about Windows 8's future.

"Microsoft has a chance here," he said. "By the second half of 2014, there will be a lot more touch-enabled systems. That, and these updates, could help Windows 8 long term. I don't think Windows 8 will be more successful than Windows 7 [in the enterprise] but if 8.1 is easy to deploy, that could change over time."

Most important to enterprises, said Silver, will be the ease of updating from Windows 8 to version 8.1. If the first "point" release is painless to distribute to Windows 8 hardware, Microsoft will have a better shot at convincing enterprises to adopt the radical OS.

"If enterprises see that this is relatively easy to deploy, they may start thinking about Windows 8," Silver said. "What Microsoft needs to do is get some credibility here."

After Microsoft moved to a regularly-scheduled Patch Tuesday in the fall of 2003, companies instituted a complicated process of testing and spot-deploying the updates before rolling them out en mass, said Silver. But as time went on, many halted the practice as they became confident the patches would not cripple computers or break applications.

"Now, very few organizations do that," Silver maintained. "Microsoft needs to gain that kind of credibility for these [Windows 8] updates."

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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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