Microsoft will reportedly use the gap between the RTM release and the official launch to address remaining bugs and smooth over rough edges. The challenge the company faces in doing so has gained new dimension in recent days; a leaked build of Windows 8.1 has been earning mixed reviews online, and on Monday, research firm IDC announced more disappointing news about Windows 8 sales.
Citing sources, ZDNet reported on Monday that Microsoft will deliver the RTM build by the end of the month but that Windows 8.1 will not be available to the public until mid-October, alongside new touch-screen PCs and tablets. The Verge later corroborated the report, citing sources familiar with Microsoft's plans.
In the meantime, the challenges Win 8.1 will face have become clearer, as has the extent to which the update offers improvements.
[ Will Windows 8.1's support for 3-D printing win you over? Read Microsoft Touts Windows 8.1 3-D Printing. ]
On Monday, IDC analyst Bob O'Donnell told Computerworld that touchscreen laptops are selling even more poorly than originally forecast; the research firm expected touch notebooks to account for up to 18% of laptop sales but now expects between 10% and 15%, he said.
The new figures add to Windows 8's ongoing challenges. Windows tablets accounted for only 4% of tablet shipments in the most recent quarter, according to IDC. Net Applications, a Web tracking firm, found that Windows 8's desktop adoption decelerated in July and stands at only 5.4% of the market. That's a little less than one-eighth Windows 7's market-leading share, and about one-seventh Windows XP's share.
Microsoft has indicated that touch will become a standard part of the Windows experience, and in June, Windows Commercial senior product marketing manager Brad McCabe told InformationWeek that Microsoft thinks businesses will begin buying more touch-equipped machines in 2014, once hardware refreshes begin.
Microsoft expects hardware refreshes in part because the company will stop supporting Windows XP in April, which could push many users off of aging hardware. Nearly two out of every five computers in the world runs Windows XP, and for many of XP business users, upgrades involve budget and licensing challenges.
If, as IDC's newest data suggests, PC users aren't particularly interested in touch, many businesses will simply upgrade to Windows 7, which gives Microsoft revenue but ultimately impedes the progress of Steve Ballmer's "One Microsoft" plan, which is built around Windows 8 and the cloud.
Analysts have suggested Windows 8.1 might offer enough to appease uneasy enterprise customers -- but these "appeasements" include the option to sever the Modern UI from the desktop. This outcome won't incent developers to create Modern UI apps, and again, does little for Microsoft's long-term goals.
An ostensibly recent build of Windows 8.1 that leaked onto the Internet over the last few days testifies to many of the upgrade's improvements.
Notably, the leak, named Build 9471, includes extensive tutorials to make Windows 8 easier to use. It includes visual clues to indicate hidden menus, unlike the current version, which leaves menus invisible until they are swiped into view. The build also features animated "parallax" backgrounds, significantly improved native apps, and all of the tweaks present in earlier leaks, such as resizable Live Tiles, a restored Start button and a boot-to-desktop option.
But while the above improvements could interest consumers and enterprise users alike, Build 9471 also highlights potential concerns. Bing Smart Search, which is enabled by default in the leak, essentially treats a user's computer like Google treats its search engine, for example, tracking every search the user makes.
This plays into the way Windows 8 is designed, with users encouraged to use the Search charm to locate most content, and with hierarchal file windows significantly de-emphasized.
With the personal information it collects, Bing Smart Search also likely plays into Steve Ballmer's vision of a Windows that "anticipates" users' wants and needs. It also collapses the Internet, local files, the cloud and local software into a single interface, which serves the company's long-term vision for Azure and SkyDrive. But in the post-PRISM age, it also has the potential to creep out consumers.
And even if Microsoft effectively communicates Bing Smart Search to the public, other questions remain. In the leaked build, saving and accessing files locally involves more steps than saving and accessing files in the cloud. The Start button also still lacks a Start menu. Until users respond positively or negatively to these tweaks, it remains to be seen if some of Microsoft's decisions are resolute or stubborn.
What's clear is this: So far, the market isn't interested in Windows 8, and though Windows 8.1 is better, it's not yet an obvious enough improvement to turn the tide. Based on the reports, Microsoft has given itself about eight weeks to polish its delivery before heading into two substantial tests: the holidays' consumer sales, and 2014's anticipated enterprise upgrade cycle.