When it comes to weaving the saga of Windows 8.1, the media has pretty well vetted three of the Five W's. Most of the analysis goes like this: Microsoft (Who) must improve on Windows 8 by doing X (What) to bring more computer users into the Modern UI era (Why). The other two W's, though, have been largely ignored. One of them, Where, isn't really relevant to the story. But it's curious that the question of When has barely been touched, because it's tremendously important to the prospects for Windows 8.1 success.
Microsoft hasn't come out and said when Windows 8.1, code-named Windows Blue, will be commercially available, although Digitimes reported last week that the official release will come in late October. Judging from the state of development activity, the timing sounds about right. This much is certain: Windows 8.1 will not be available in the next six weeks, as it needs to be to make it into the first batch of next-generation PCs.
[ When it does arrive, will Windows 8.1 increase acceptance of Microsoft's beleaguered OS? Read Windows 8: 5 Hopeful Signs. ]
Those cool new systems are being released in June and early July for a reason: to intercept the critical back-to-school selling season. An October launch for Windows 8.1 means that back-to-school PCs will be saddled with a lame-duck version of Windows. (I've written before about how important it is for the PC OEMs to update in lockstep their entire product: hardware, OS, and aesthetics. That means we'll see fewer PC sales than we would if PC makers were able to pair their latest hardware with the latest operating system.
In some ways, releasing a new version of Windows in October, which Microsoft has tried to do since Windows XP, makes sense. Microsoft has three primary channels for distributing Windows: Retail, for standalone copies; government, enterprise and other large buyers, which install Windows themselves onto the computers they buy; and the PC makers, which bundle Windows with new systems. October is ideal timing for selling retail copies to customers who want to install the latest onto their home PCs. And large customers don't much care which season Microsoft picks to release Windows, because they're not going to rush out and buy it anyway.
So it's only the PC OEMs that get stung by an October release date. And they still have time to regroup and address the holiday season, even if they risk losing back-to-school sales. They've even got a chance to recoup those delayed purchases.
When Microsoft was forced to push out the Windows Vista launch to early 2007, for example, the final period of 2006 ended up being the PC market's worst in the 22-quarter stretch from early 2003, when consumer notebook purchasing lifted PC shipments out of the post-Y2K slump, through the end of 2008, when the financial crash stalled sales. According to IDC, PC shipments grew just 8.3% in the fourth quarter of 2006, the only period during the stretch that didn't log double-digit growth. But sales bounced back the following period, jumping 15.3% over the first quarter of 2006. Of course, there weren't any tablets around to siphon off holiday spending in 2006. You couldn't even buy a Kindle for another year.
The landscape has changed, and there's far more at stake now. Today, consumers don't just sit and wait until PC vendors get their act together. They spend their holiday budget on other things. Tablets, mostly. And if they buy tablets, the loss to the PC business doesn't end with missed seasonal sales. That's because these consumers aren't the same PC users they were before they got the tablets. Their tastes have changed. And their usage patterns have changed. They do less on the PC than they once did.
Some of them won't come back to the PC. More commonly, though, consumers who opt for a tablet because the stable of available PCs doesn't compel them eventually will return to buy a PC. They'll take longer to do that than they otherwise would have. And they probably won't spend as much on it as they once would, because the PC isn't as essential to them as it once was.
That cuts to the core of the PC OEMs' business. But it's also a nick in Microsoft's bottom line, and one the company can't afford to ignore any longer.
An October release date for Windows 8.1 won't do as much damage as the Windows 8 release caused a year ago. For one thing, Windows 8.1 is a comparatively minor release, so Windows 8 won't feel quite as lame-ducky on back-to-school systems this year as Windows 7 did last summer. For another, there are fewer PC users who've never owned a tablet to alienate. Not after last summer.
It's been tempting for Microsoft to time new Windows releases for the holiday season, but the company is going to have to change its mindset -- and do it soon. Eventually, its planners will come to realize that consumers aren't going to upgrade a PC to the next OS if they didn't bother to buy a PC that came bundled with the last version.
And that, my friends, is the Why behind the When.