Windows 8 is now six months old, and as part of Microsoft’s new commitment to more frequent updates, its first major update, codenamed “Windows Blue,” will be coming soon. Here’s what we know so far.
In addition to providing the usual bug fixes and performance improvements, Windows Blue is Microsoft’s attempt to address some of the feedback and concerns that users have over Windows 8. As Tami Reller, CFO of Microsoft’s Windows client division, explained to ZDNet: “We feel good that we’ve listened and looked at all of the customer feedback. We are being principled, not stubborn [about modifying Windows 8 based on that feedback].”
Microsoft sources have repeatedly told journalists that “Windows Blue” is simply a codename. While it’s possible that the company may carry the codename over to the finished product, the designation of “Windows 8.1” has also been spotted in leaked developer builds of the OS.
New Features & Changes
One of the most talked about changes reportedly coming in Windows Blue is the return of a “Start” button to the Desktop. But fans of the traditional Windows UI shouldn’t get too excited; sources suggest that the company only plans to add a button that takes users to the current Metro (a.k.a. “Modern”) Start Screen and that the old Start Menu won’t be making a comeback.
ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley suggested on the Windows Weekly podcast that the return of a Start button was a way to appease enterprise customers who are hesitant to upgrade to Windows 8. While the functionality of the button will be different from previous versions of Windows, the presence of a dedicated button may help the retraining process for employees who have spent years, even decades, using a traditional Windows UI.
Another major feature is speculated to be an option to boot directly to the desktop. In the current version of Windows 8, users are taken to the Metro Start Screen after booting or logging in. However, many using Windows 8 on desktop computers find little value in the Metro interface and prefer to spend their time on the Desktop, making the stop at the Start Screen an unnecessary annoyance.
By adding an option to boot directly to the Desktop, bypassing Metro entirely, Microsoft would be able to appease businesses and average consumers alike. Unfortunately, it is possible that this option will only be available to enterprise customers who use Windows to run custom enterprise apps and that it will be absent from consumer versions of Windows.
Unspecified changes to the interface to enhance navigation with a keyboard and mouse, again a major appeal to business customers, are also rumored, along with performance enhancements and bug fixes.
Support for Smaller Devices
A key component in Windows Blue will be UI support for smaller devices, specifically tablets in the 7-to–8-inch range. The small tablet market has exploded in the past year and Microsoft is expected to release a Surface branded product in that category as well as support third-party hardware partners with their own small tablets later this year.
While the current version of Windows can support these smaller devices, the changes in Blue will optimize the experience for users. “Blue does a nice job of optimizing for those small screen form factor sizes,” Ms. Reller explained. “Yes, [some small form factor tablets will be released before Blue launches], but Blue also does more to support [this form factor].”
Pricing & Availability
It’s not yet known if the Windows Blue update will carry a nominal charge or if it will be a free update, akin to point updates on OS X. Microsoft-focused journalist Paul Thurrott has argued several times that the company “would be stupid” to not release the update free of charge, given the relatively underwhelming adoption of the product and customer complaints.
Microsoft promises to reveal pricing information “in the next couple of weeks.”
A public preview build of Blue will be available by the end of June during Microsoft’s Build Developer Conference. It will be distributed to current Windows 8 users via the Windows Store, making it likely that the final shipping version will also roll out on the Windows Store.
Blue should be considered just the first of several major updates to Windows 8, Ms. Reller said, but Microsoft is not committing to a set release schedule. “You shouldn’t assume we won’t be doing this yearly… or that we will,” she added.
Windows Blue is not a surprise, nor is it entirely reactionary to customer feedback. Throughout the development of Windows 8, Microsoft spoke often about the company’s desire to transition to a more regular software update model. Microsoft successfully made this transition with Office 365, albeit on a subscription basis, and it is just beginning the process with Windows.
An update six months in to the operating system’s lifecycle is therefore an expected development. However, it’s clear that Microsoft was not anticipating the breadth and depth of customer confusion and, in some cases, outright anger over the changes the company made in Windows 8. While Blue may have been on Microsoft’s roadmap all along, the anticipated changes involving the Start Button and boot options represent the company’s challenge to balance its own vision for the future of Windows with the realities of customer needs and wants.
As Ms. Reller explains, in addition to addressing customer feedback, “Blue advances the Windows 8 vision. It’s all about mobile, touch, apps, the new dev platform and a highly personalized personal experience.” That’s not the language of a company that’s getting ready to admit defeat and roll back to a Windows 7 UI.