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Windows Blue: Will Microsoft Give Free Upgrade?

Microsoft hasn't said if it will offer Windows Blue as a free service pack-style upgrade to Windows 8 customers. Some analysts say it should.
8 Things Microsoft Could Do To Save Windows 8
8 Things Microsoft Could Do To Save Windows 8
(click image for slideshow)
Microsoft is officially, kind-of-sort-of talking about Windows Blue, the codenamed update to Windows 8 set to roll out some time later this year.

Although the company had already acknowledged Blue, it's now ratcheting up the volume. Microsoft corporate VP Julie Larson-Green told the Wired Business Conference that the company will release a public preview of Blue at the Build developers' conference in June. Fellow Windows executive Tami Reller also addressed Blue in a recent Q&A blog post, saying the update "will deliver the latest new innovations across an increasingly broad array of form factors of all sizes, display, battery life and performance, while creating new opportunities for our ecosystem."

Although short on specifics, both Larson-Green and Reller noted Blue represents a chance for Microsoft to address user responses to Windows 8 since it launched last fall. "The Windows Blue update is also an opportunity for us to respond to the customer feedback that we’ve been closely listening to since the launch of Windows 8 and Windows RT," Reller said. That might -- or might not -- include the return of the popular Start button, for example. (Of that possibility, Larson-Green told the Wired conference: "There's been meaningful discussion.")

[ What's wrong with Windows 8? Read 8 Things Microsoft Should Fix In Windows Blue. ]

There's one Blue topic that Microsoft is not talking about yet: Pricing and licensing. As Windows 8 user Dave Lorde asked in a comment on Reller's Q&A: "Does this mean current Windows 8 users get a 'Windows Blue' service pack?"

Microsoft doesn't have an answer yet, at least not a public one. A company spokesman on Thursday declined to comment on pricing or licensing.

It seems borderline unconscionable that Microsoft might charge early Windows 8 customers to upgrade to Blue, particularly as the latter gets framed as a fix for the former's shortcomings. Referring to Windows 8, Reller recently told The Wall Street Journal: "We didn't get everything we dreamed of done." So why not come right out and say Blue will be delivered to Windows 8 buyers as a free upgrade? Aside from the risk of jilting early adopters, why would anyone pony up for a new Windows 8 device until the Blue picture comes into sharper focus?

This doesn't mean Microsoft won't offer Blue as a free service pack-style upgrade to Windows 8 customers. But it has yet to come out and say so, even as the Blue bandwagon's engines start to rev.

"I would not be surprised to see them offer an upgrade from Windows 8 to Windows Blue for free," Forrester senior analyst David Johnson said in an interview. An upgrade for "little or nothing" gives Microsoft a chance to make amends with dissatisfied Windows 8 buyers, Johnson noted.

Beyond pricing, Johnson is glad to see Blue on the horizon. "I'm happy to see the admission that, hey, maybe we overshot this a little bit," he said. "What they're quickly learning is that tablets and PCs are two separate things, not just from a use-case standpoint but also from a legal, audit and compliance standpoint."

Johnson also sees upside for customers in a new, faster development-and-release cycle for Windows. The previous, multi-year cycle made it too easy for companies to skip versions of Windows, in part because of the challenges often associated with major migrations. "That's how you get stuck on XP for 10, 12 years," Johnson said. A yearly cycle of smaller releases, for example, could enable more organizations to stay current. "[Companies could] move level to level rather than having to wait for every three years and get in a mode of inertia."

Smaller, quicker releases could reduce pain in areas like application compatibility, which Johnson said has hampered Microsoft and kept plenty of organizations on older versions of Windows. "[Application compatibility] is just a disaster," Johnson said. "That turns it into a change project for any company that wants to [upgrade]."

The Windows Store and Windows 8's App Container offer a lot of promise for security-minded businesses, according to Johnson. He even envisions the possibility that IT might be able to enable local admin rights for end users to choose and download their own applications from Windows Store without unnecessary security or stability risks.

"The locked-down desktop environment is just not a good experience, which is what's driving people to an iPad in the first place," Johnson said. "I think Microsoft has been slow to understand that."

Possible enhancements to the Windows app world might include the ability for enterprises to offer an internal app store within Windows Store; Johnson pointed out workflows such as payment approval for employee-purchased apps that could be opportunities for Windows Store to become more enterprise-friendly over time.

Johnson thinks businesses will pay close attention to Windows Blue to see if it suits their needs. And yes, the desktop, highlighted by the traditional Start button, is a big reason why. These aren't organizations full of Luddites and naysayers; rather, Johnson said they'd like to stay current and many of them were probably early adopters of Windows 7. But usability is more than a throwaway concern, and Windows 8's dual design is a problem.

"Everybody's interested in it, [Blue], mainly for the reason that they don't feel comfortable moving away from Windows 7 unless they have a Start button," Johnson said. "They're just afraid that they've got a high percentage of workers that they would have to retool and retrain. They've got laptops and desktops that aren't optimized for touch-based interface."