When Microsoft released its new generation platform releases in late 2012 and early 2013—Windows 8 and Windows RT, of course, but also Windows Server 2012, Windows Phone 8, the newly-renamed Windows Services (what used to be Windows Live), Office 365 and Office 2013, Visual Studio 2012, and more—it wasn’t just iterating new versions of these products as it had in the past. Instead, Microsoft was undergoing a company-wide restructuring of how it delivers software solutions to its customers. And part of that restructuring involves changing how it services and updates these solutions going forward.  This year, we’re starting to see how that’s going to work.

If you’re familiar with Microsoft’s traditional servicing schedule, especially for its business-oriented products, you know most Microsoft platforms have received monthly security updates, less frequent update roll-ups and other updates, and, once a year or so, a service pack. Microsoft had also briefly dabbled with something called a feature pack, which was essentially a way to deliver new features to existing products out of band with the major milestones, though more recently it also created “R2” (release 2) releases that accomplished a similar goal. And, of course, major new versions have appeared on some schedule as well, with one release roughly every three years or so.

This way of doing things made sense when most software was distributed on physical media and when the PCs used by office workers were overwhelmingly found within a corporate network where they could be easily managed and serviced. I don’t have to go into detail about how the world has changed, of course, but over the past decade, pervasive broadband, mobile computing, multi-touch, the consumerization of IT, the bring your own device (BYOD) to work movement, and other technology trends have revolutionized how users expect to consume computing resources. And Microsoft, often incorrectly perceived as a laggard, has aggressively moved to address these expectations in its offerings.

The start of this was the addition of online services to the firm’s stable of solutions. These include services that are unique to the online world—such as SkyDrive cloud storage—but also a growing portfolio of services-based versions of Microsoft’s bread-and-butter on-premises offerings: Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, Lync Online, Office 365, and more. It includes new products that are somewhat like existing solutions but reimagined for the cloud: Windows Azure, for example, and Windows Intune.

Microsoft’s strength here is that it offers hybrid solutions in addition to its purely cloud-based and on-premises offerings. So whereas Google pretty much can only offer you Google Apps in the cloud, Microsoft can offer Exchange on-premises, Exchange Online (hosted by Microsoft or various partners), or some combination of the two. It’s an amazing flexibility that has helped many companies plot a move to the cloud where and when it makes sense, on their own schedules.

But some of Microsoft’s biggest products continue to be those on-premises client solutions that are installed on PCs around the world: Windows, of course, but also Office, each with its billion-plus installed base of active users. Surely there’s no way to move such products to an online services model? Actually, there is.

Bringing Traditional Software into the Services Age

If you’re familiar with Google’s Chrome web browser, you might know that this product has quickly iterated through more than 25 versions in its four and a half years of life. Compare this to Internet Explorer, Microsoft’s web browser, which first launched in 1995—18 years ago—and is only at version 10. In these two products you can see the difference between the online services way of doing things and the suddenly old-fashioned, monolithic way in which Microsoft has traditionally updated its software. Chrome isn’t an online service per se. It's traditional Windows software that downloads from the web and is installed locally on your PC, just like any other Windows application. But Google updates Chrome like it’s an online service. And users reap the benefits of a product that is automatically updated for them, quickly, with both new features and bug and security fixes. It’s basically a hybrid approach.

Windows 8 (and RT) and Office 2013 are two recent examples of traditional Microsoft software that's designed for this same servicing model. Both—not coincidentally—can be installed from a website and are in fact designed to be installed that way, primarily. Both install much more quickly than their predecessors, which were monolithic, traditionally deployed software solutions. And both, more important, are designed to be updated on a rolling basis going forward. That's what we’re starting to see in 2013.

This effort didn’t develop overnight. In fact, Windows 8 and Office 2013—and other similarly designed products—are the results of years of change. And one gets the notion that in the case of the Windows team, especially, change is coming a bit hard. But there is a plan.

First, most of the Microsoft products I’ve mentioned so far in this article will be updated on a regular basis going forward, like an online service, and that’s true whether they’re online services or not. (The schedules vary somewhat by product.) Monthly security patches will continue, of course, but service packs are out.

Those customers who receive Office 2013 via an Office 365 subscription—personal or work-based—will receive updates to the suite (as well as to the Office 365 hosted online services) on a quarterly basis. Yes, new features will be delivered to Office 2013—including subsequent major releases, which one might still expect to occur on the old schedule—each quarter.

For Windows 8 and Windows RT, the plan is for the built-in apps to be updated on a rolling basis. But the next release of Windows 8/RT, a sort of combination service pack/feature pack that's code-named Blue—will hit in the second half of 2013, or at roughly GA+1 (that is, one year after the general availability of the original RTM release of the OSs). You might think of Windows 8 Blue as being somewhat analogous to Windows XP SP2, or Windows Server 2008 R2, the type of thing that Microsoft in the past might have charged customers for and named accordingly. But my sources tell me that this release will still be considered Windows 8 and that everyone will be moved forward.

Windows 8/RT isn’t the only platform getting a Blue update in the coming months: Windows Server 2012, Windows Phone 8, and the Windows Services are all getting their own updates as part of the Blue wave. And Office? While it’s not using the Blue moniker and does of course have its own update schedule, Office 2013 is in fact getting an update, code-named Gemini, in late 2013 that will allegedly add Metro-style Office apps (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint) for Windows 8 and RT, as well as Android and Apple iPad and iPhone versions of the suite.

That’s a lot of change. Microsoft is expected to begin divulging information about Blue, and Gemini, and the next version of the Xbox, code-named Durango, which, get this, will be based on Windows 8 and will use the same developer APIs and frameworks. This could come during special events in the next few months—at TechEd 2013 in early June and at the recently announced Build 2013, which is happening in late June 2013.

But you don’t have to wait for that. I’ve got a few more details—in particular about Windows 8/RT Blue—courtesy of a leaked version of the product that I think provides a very telling peek at Microsoft’s plans for mobile clients going forward.

Windows 8 Blue

As the second release of Windows 8, Blue moves the needle decidedly over to the Metro side of the fence. That is, while Windows 8 today is politely described as two OSs (Metro and the desktop) in one—and impolitely described as a Frankenstein’s monster—Windows 8 Blue is all about reducing the reliance on the desktop. The desktop’s not going away in Blue, per se: My suspicion is that such a thing won’t happen until Windows 9 at the earliest, could possibly happen in the Windows RT variant of the OS first, and will most likely be an optional change for a while. Still, one of the big confusions in Windows 8 is that some settings are configured in the classic Control Panel interface while others are handled in the new PC Settings interface.

In Blue, there have been two major changes in this regard. First, PC Settings has been dramatically expanded, both with sub-screens and with dramatically more configurable options; it’s likely that by the time this OS update does ship, all but the most experienced users will be able to get everything they need exclusively on the Metro side. Second, many Metro-style settings are now available in the context of the interface you’re configuring. For example, when you view the Settings panel from the Start screen, you now actually see Start screen settings, as Figure 1 shows. In the initial Windows 8 version, you had to go spelunking into PC Settings to find that, and had to know about PC Settings to begin with.

 

What you don’t see in the recently leaked build of Windows 8 Blue are any major changes to the desktop. Heck, there aren’t any minor changes either: Blue appears to be about bolstering the Metro environment solely. That's either good or bad depending on your perspective.

I’ll rehash the argument that Windows 8 is already an excellent update for anyone using a traditional (non-touch) PC, and that perhaps Blue doesn’t need to make any headway in that particular area, whereas the Metro environment, as a 1.0 release, is obviously immature and in need of drastic change. But if you’re nervous about this consumer-y vision of the future of computing, of a world of multi-touch Windows tablets overtaking our traditional desktops and laptops, Windows 8 Blue is going to be a tough pill to swallow. In fact, I think it speaks pointedly to Microsoft’s belief that multi-touch devices are indeed the future.

Or, perhaps more accurately, we might say that general-purpose computing isn’t so traditional anymore. In addition to non-traditional PC devices, the next Xbox is taking the Windows 8 core to a living room device that will sport a new generation of natural UIs—motion and voice control—that could then very easily be brought back around to PCs and even smart phones. It’s a virtuous cycle just waiting to happen.

We’ll find out more in the coming months. But between Blue, Gemini, and Microsoft’s general plan to advance the state of the art in software deployment and servicing, it’s pretty clear that the rusty old PC is about to get a big upgrade, or at least a ton of smaller upgrades. And it's happening, for a change, both inside and outside the box.