People seem a little shocked at how much change is coming in both the Windows 8.1 Update (a.k.a. Update 1, Feature Pack, etc.) and in Windows Phone 8.1. You probably shouldn’t be as both offerings have far more effort behind them than their names suggest. Recall that all of this is part of a product “wave” Microsoft referred to internally as Blue that entered planning as Windows 8/Windows Phone 8 were being finalized .
Back before Windows 8 shipped I wrote a blog entry on how Microsoft might adapt the Windows engineering system to deal with quick turnaround releases. One alternative I proposed is that they would do a planning phase that covered multiple releases rather than separate planning phases for each release. That’s exactly what I think we are seeing with the Windows 8.1 Update.
Microsoft did a planning exercise for Windows 8.1, saw how many development milestones they could fit in to make the 8.1 RTM target, allocated work to those development milestones, then created a post-8.1 development milestone and allocated the remaining 8.1 work to it. That added development milestone is what we now see as the 8.1 Update. But the plan and most of the decisions and designs were done more than a year ago as part of the original 8.1 effort. Even a lot of the development work behind the Update may have been done as part of an earlier 8.1 milestone but it couldn’t be completed until the post-RTM milestone. At least I believe that’s the case.
So whereas most of us see Windows 8.1 as what Windows 8.0 should have been, the Windows 8.1 Update is what Microsoft envisioned Windows 8.1 being!
Meanwhile Windows Phone 8.1 is an even bigger deal, and would no doubt have a more impressive name (8.5 or 9) if it weren’t for the attempt to line up Windows and Windows Phone version naming. Well, it isn’t just naming it is an attempt to coordinate the releases much more closely, something that really kicks into gear for the post-Blue product wave after the One Microsoft reorg.
Consider that Windows Phone 8.1 is the first release of WP where the development team has gotten to place its primary focus on features and functions for customers and OEMs. It is also the first release since the original Windows Phone 7 effort to have an 18 month (rather than 12 month) release cycle. There is some amount of arbitrariness in picking how long the Windows Phone 7 cycle was, but basically it is 18-24 months depending on your perspective.
A year after Windows Phone 7 we had 7.5, which matured the platform a bit. But even as Microsoft worked on that release it was ramping up the activities to move to a completely different kernel. And then the entire team was focused on that kernel move for Windows Phone 8. That meant for Windows Phone 7.5 and Windows Phone 8 we had modest (but important) improvements for users and developers, but most of Microsoft’s effort was going on under the covers.
Windows Phone 8.1 represents the first release of Windows Phone where the majority of the team doesn’t have to be focused on a new kernel. Sure there is kernel-related work going on, like support for lower-end chipsets, but the teams working on higher-level layers finally had a level of stability in the lower-level layers that should have let them focus most of their resources on user visible improvements. Combine that with the longer 18 month development cycle and Windows Phone 8.1 had better be a major step forward in user visible functionality!
Let me state this more strongly. I would expect Windows Phone 8.1 to be the release where Windows Phone stops being an OS that is clearly less mature than IOS and Android and instead enters a phase where it is playing the same leapfrog game that the two of them have been engaged in. From the leaks it seems that’s about where 8.1 is going to land.
Do the Windows 8.1 Update and Windows Phone 8.1 represent the end of the rollout of the Blue wave of OS changes? Probably, with the caveat that Microsoft might release some minor to modest updates (similar to the Windows Phone 8 GDRs) before what is probably a Windows/Windows Phone 9 release. Hopefully we’ll get some idea of their strategy, if not a full (PDC-style) developer-oriented reveal, at Build 2014 in less than a month.