While most observers expect to see Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 no earlier than next fall, there have been various indicators that we could see one or both much earlier. Indeed, there is increasing evidence that we might see them in early summer, specifically in June. The most credible indicators come from Nokia executives who seem to have developed what police call “diarrhea of the mouth”, aka inability to keep their mouths shut. Most recently Nokia execs have claimed both Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 are coming in this earlier timeframe. Can this indeed be the case?
The way most observers come up with their fall dates is by looking backwards at the Windows 7 and Windows Phone 7/7.5 development cycles. Those both suggest fall deliveries, but don’t take into account potential changes in how Microsoft and OEMs execute the “end game”. Historically for both Windows and Windows Phone there is a multi-month testing period between the final software build (known as RTM for historical reasons) and General Availability. Historically this allowed for the manufacturing and distribution of floppies and later CDs and DVDs. It also allowed an OEM to add their own final drivers, do final testing, switch over their manufacturing processes, and push systems through their distribution network to retailers. Well, what if Microsoft and it’s OEMs could do more of this process in parallel? You could drop a few months of time between Microsoft’s RTM to system availability down to days or weeks!
The primary reason OEM’s take so long after RTM to bring products to retail is that historically Microsoft has made too many last minute changes for the OEMs to complete their own work in parallel. But Microsoft already demonstrated with Windows 7 and Windows Phone 7/7.5 that it has the discipline to avoid this. With the right set of commitments, and OEM trust that Microsoft will live up to them, an OEM could finalize drivers, testing, etc. of pre-RTM builds and be ready to go when Microsoft delivers RTM bits. I believe Microsoft and OEMs, particularly those with the closest relationships such as Nokia and Dell, are going down this path.
Another factor is specifically around tablets. Since tablets have a more limited set of potential (at least initial) configurations to worry about, it is likely that Microsoft would be able to make a stronger set of assurances to OEMs around them. In other words, they could give OEMs something like the Windows Phone chassis definition and focus testing and stability on that. This would allow the time from RTM to GA for tablets to be shorter than it is for desktops/laptops. Historically Microsoft would have held launch until all form factors were ready. But I suspect that they are so desperate to launch their full-court press on the iPad that they would now support GA of tablets a couple of months earlier than on other configurations.
Last, Microsoft has been working hard on its update processes for multiple releases now. It is entirely conceivable that they would allow OEMs to ship a pre-RTM version of Windows 8 or Windows Phone 8 on their devices but require a mandatory update by the consumer prior to the device becoming fully functional. This would let OEMs fill the channel with devices prior to RTM and then release the devices for sale the moment Microsoft has the RTM and updates ready to go.
The bottom line here is that historically for Microsoft to have products available for the holiday shopping season the would have hit RTM in June for Octoberish General Availability. Now it may be possible for an early June RTM to result in late June General Availability! One practical advantage of this would be to hit the back to school shopping season. And having college students start to show up at school in the fall with Windows Tablets rather than iPads would surely be a big win.