When Windows 8 launched last year, touch-equipped devices were in relatively short supply, one of several factors that led to poor holiday sales. As a result, the Windows 8.1 timeline was an important announcement. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's plans involve more than Windows, however, and he and other execs dedicated much of the keynote to touting the company's >em>other billion-dollar businesses -- Office and Azure.
Windows 8 has been a recurring theme at all of Microsoft's recent conference appearances. At TechEd in early June, the company touted Win8.1 from an enterprise angle, including how the restored Start button and other tweaks can improve the experience for desktop users. At the PC tradeshow Computex, also in early June, Microsoft execs demonstrated the update for the first time. Two weeks ago at Build, Microsoft's developers conference, the company released Windows 8.1 as a public preview.
[ Microsoft is determined to make Windows 8.1 work well. Read Microsoft Releases First Windows 8.1 Fixes. ]
Given this timeline, details about a release-to-manufacturing (RTM) build of Windows 8.1 were the next logical step. Nonetheless, some important questions remain. The update will hit OEMs in time for the lucrative holiday season, for example, but will it miss out on back-to-school promotions?
The update will eventually become available to current Windows 8 and Windows RT users as a free update via the Windows Store. If that availability more or less coincides with the RTM build, Microsoft might enjoy robust sales among students. Win8 tablets are the only ones that can run Office, giving them a valuable productivity edge, and new models equipped with Intel's latest chips are addressing the battery life problems that plagued first-generation models. With Win8.1 a mere download away, many could be tempted by the new machines. But it remains to be seen if sales will take off if the update is still unavailable.
Outside of the Windows 8 universe, Microsoft also used WPC to emphasize how crucial the cloud has become to its business, and how many opportunities this transition has created for its customers and partners. Company representatives, citing an IDC study that Microsoft commissioned, said that partners that make at least 50% of their revenue via cloud services generate nearly twice as much gross profit as their less cloud-oriented peers. The survey, which included 1,300 Microsoft partners, found that cloud-driven business models grow faster, accrue new customers more quickly and generate more revenue per employee.
Microsoft also announced new channel programs and products. These include Cloud OS Accelerate, an initiative in which Microsoft and certain partners -- such as Cisco, NetApp, HP and Dell -- will invest more than $100 million to galvanize the adoption of private and hybrid cloud systems. The company also announced a 30% discount for Windows Intune customers who are buying the cloud-focused management product as part of an Office 365 Client Access License suite.
Other announcements included Power BI for Office 365, which allows users to harness Excel for not only its traditional data visualization tasks but also enhanced business intelligence and collaboration. Microsoft also added new Office 365 bundles to its Open program, which allows partners to own the billing relationship with an end customer, and to offer Microsoft products as part of larger packages.
Additionally, Microsoft announced that the Office store, which has delivered more than 1 million downloads, will expand to 22 new markets and four new languages. The company also previewed Windows Azure's Active Directory capabilities.
As is usually the case at Microsoft's conference appearances, the company didn't address as many issues as some had hoped. At WPC, some had expected new details about Microsoft's Surface rollout, which currently allows only a limited number of channel partners to resell the device. According to CRN, some WPC attendees were frustrated that Ballmer neglected the topic.
Nonetheless, WPC reaffirmed that Microsoft is charging forward, shedding its Windows-defined persona for a more diverse identity that includes not only operating systems but a variety of developer platforms, cloud infrastructure and a breed of Office apps that are growing increasingly social and mobile. It's a different Microsoft than customers and partners are used to, and time will tell if Ballmer has made the right moves to extend the company's dominance.