Why rapid-fire updates are the key to Microsoft's success

Why rapid-fire updates are the key to Microsoft's success

Microsoft's adoption of a continuous development cycle may not sound impressive, but it heralds a more responsive era of computing

Ask five geeks about Windows 8s greatest flaw, and youre bound to get five different answers. Some diss the new Start screen. Some hate the big hole where the Start button used to be. Others rail against the indignity of having to swipe open a Charms bar to print or search for anything. And whats with those Microsoft Accounts?

But you know what the biggest problem with Windows 8 is? Its just too much new at onceand it absolutely had to be. Traditional Windows development was so glacial, so grossly slow and lumbering, that the original iPad hadnt even been released when Windows 7 saw the light of day. So Microsoft was forced to play a massive game of catch up with Windows 8, or risk falling behind the eight ball forever.

That wont happen again.

Microsoft is ditching the lethargic release schedule of past years and shifting to a continuous development cycle focused on releasing ongoing rhythm of updates and innovations. The move to smaller, more rapid updates is a gigantic change for Microsoftand its a change that holds earth-shaking implications for the entire PC ecosystem.

Lets peer into the future, folks.

Faster, better, cheaper

Well start simple. As PCWorld detailed when the first whispers of the Windows Blue update hit the Web, a move to regular, rapid updates could introduce several significant benefits for end users, aka you and me.

First, they shouldnt hurt your wallet as much. More frequent updates should be cheaper updates. (Check out the sticker cost of Apples OS X tune-ups for an example.) Rather than dropping $100 to $200 on a whole new Windows operating system every three years, you may end up dropping $30 to $50 annually for access to the latest tweaks and features. Who doesnt like cheap stuff?

Microsofts en masse transition to a continuous development cycle also means more frequent updates for the companys vast software family, from Windows to Office to other apps and services. The steady jog of updates thats required to keep pace with innovation means Microsoft can deliver new features and design tweaks to Windows users digital doorsteps in much shorter order (and in much smaller doses) than before.

The future is incremental, not revolutionary. There will be no more grand, Windows 8-esque ripping of the UI Band-Aid. Instead, there will be baby steps.

Were already starting to see fruits from Microsofts developmental refocus. A recent update to Windows 8s Mail, Calendar, and People apps added much-needed functionality to the operating systems core communication software in the form of a subtle, yet welcome interface streamlining. An early build of Windows Blue recently leaked to the Web as well, and buried deep within its Live Tiles were several nifty tweaks that quell some of the initial concerns revolving around Windows 8s new modern UI.

Microsoft needs to tread carefully as it wades into the incremental waters, however.

While a continuous development cycle will prevent the kind of drastic overhaul thats inspired cold water shock in first-time Windows 8 users, it also opens up the possibility of pissing off all users by introducing minor, irritating UI changes all the time.

While it definitely makes sense to introduce changes incrementally from the standpoint of helping users to adjust their learning to new features, you need to be careful to help, not disrupt user learning, says Andrea Matwyshyn, an assistant professor at the Wharton School of Business.

Nevertheless, in the past, big problems with a new version of Windows stayed big problems until either the next version of Windows appeared, or an all-too-rare Service Pack was released. The end of those days is a welcome change indeed.

Of virtuous circles

More portentous, however, is what the shift to frequent updates means for Microsoft itself.

This is a huge change for them, says Wes Miller, research vice president at Directions on Microsoft, an independent analytical organization dedicated to tracking the computing giant. And, Miller says, the change stems from the companys recent reimagining as a device and services company, rather than a pure software company. Steve Ballmer announced the new mindset in a letter to shareholders after the announcement of the Surface tablet.

Thats why theyre doing this, Miller said in a phone interview. Theyre trying to add value to the Windows platformWindows 8, Windows Phone 8, et ceteraon an annualized basis, both so that they can sell more devices and so that they can sell more services related to Windows. The hope is it becomes a virtuous circle: You buy a Windows device and buy Microsoft services [to complement it], then you buy another Windows device and continue using Microsoft services, and so on.

The future is software as a service, not just software. Because of that, Microsoft is attempting a monumental rejiggering of its core business.

Microsoft wants to wean customers off the habit of paying for a one-time perpetual license for software, and into the habit of paying for services once per year. Microsofts stacking of the Office 365 deck over a traditional Office 2013 installation? Its no mistake. Theres no technical reason why Microsoft couldnt deliver new feature updates (like the rumored Office Gemini) to traditional Office 2013 users as easily as they do Office 365 users. But it wont do that, because Microsoft prefers that you subscribe to Office 365 rather than buy Office 2013 outright.

Services translate into more money (and more regular, predictable cash flow) over time for Microsoft. But, accordingly, software services also need more frequent updates to provide value over traditional, static-yet-functional alternatives.

Turning Blue in the (Sur)face

Windows Blue and its alleged kickstarting of annual Windows updates ties into the mix in a couple different ways. While Blue is rumored to be a free updatethe first taste is always freeits presumed follow-ups are understood to be premium upgrades, which will get users accustomed to paying yearly for Windows even if the operating system isnt technically a service.

It may just work if Apples OS X adoption is any indication. The latest numbers for Net Applications show that more than two-thirds of Mac users run OS X 10.7 or OS X 10.8, the two most recent iterations of the operating system, with nearly half running OS X 10.8. Thats either a lot of $20 and $30 OS upgrades, or a lot of recent computers sold.

Speaking of which, the changes in Blue make Windows 8s contentious modern UI a lot more palatable, which in turn helps to make Microsofts Surface tablet more attractive to would-be buyers. Microsoft is a services and  devices company now, remember? The speedy application of new interface tweaks could breathe new life into languishing Windows tablets. If this was Old Monolithic Microsoft, the Mail app would still be just as lackluster as it was on October 26, and Windows Blues fancy new syncing options wouldnt appear until at least 2015, far behind the times.

With what Ive seen of Windows Blue, its really more of what Windows 8 should have been, Miller says. But they have to make those changes. They have to put more value in there that consumers want in order to really incent people to buy both Surface devices as well as any other Windows 8 or RT devices.

And with fast, incremental updates, Microsoft can do just that.

Finally, the move to frequent updates ties into Microsofts cross-device vision of the future. The shift to Live Tiles wasnt just a design decision, but a complete shift in strategy for Microsoft, as well as a cornerstone of the virtuous circle.

Our product groups are also taking a unified planning approach so people get what they wantall of their devices, apps and services working together wherever they are, and for whatever they are doing, said Microsoft communications honcho Frank X. Shaw in the same blog post that announced the shift to continuous development and officially acknowledged Windows Blue.

The lumbering three-year release cycle doesnt jibe with the new focus on services and interconnectedness. To keep all of its various services and platforms in tune and humming nicely, Microsoft needs to update them in near-unison. Windows RT, Windows Phone 8, and Windows Server 2012 are all reportedly slated to receive Blue-tinged updates of their own. And dont forget how Xboxes integrate with everything.

The future is an amorphous blob of devices and services delivering a consistent user experience in myriad form factors, not distinct Windows platforms.

(But why stop there? Microsoft could one day complete its own virtuous circleand give its first-party device lineup a big boostby granting free lifetime OS updates to Surface products. Computer manufacturers are smart to dabble in Chromebooks and Linux laptops, but thats a musing for another day.)

Tomorrow starts today

Matwyshyn raises a valid point about interface overload, but Microsofts move to incremental updates and continuous development looks like nothing but a good thing for users, Microsoft, and the entire PC ecosystem.

Sure, Microsofts new focus on services might be a bit worrying for traditionalists, but fear not: Stand-alone software may not feature as prominently going forward, but itll be around long after the Windows desktop dies away.

The computing world as we know it is built atop the OS that Bill Gates built. Microsofts shift from monolithic updates to a continuous development process may seem inconsequential on the Surface, but it signifies a new era for the PCone thats in tune with the fast-paced, Internet-connected world of today, rather than one beholden to the slower pace of physical discs and change-averse corporate upgrade cycles. An era built around the Internet of Things rather than staid black boxes.

Microsofts incremental future truly is the futurenot the past. And its about time it arrived.

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Tags Microsoftoperating systemssoftwareanalysisWindowsWindows 8


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