Microsoft's decision to sit on Windows 8.1 for two months after engineers wrap up work was driven by the year's biggest sales cycles, analysts said.
On Wednesday, Microsoft announced it would release Windows 8.1, the first of what's expected to be annual updates to Windows 8, through the Windows Store on Oct. 17. The next day, retail copies of the updated operating system will hit retail, as will new Windows 8.1-powered devices from Microsoft's OEM (original equipment manufacturer) partners.
But with a late August completion date for Windows 8.1 still on track -- what Microsoft calls RTM, for "release to manufacturing" -- some have wondered why the Redmond, Wash., developer plans to hold the update for eight or more weeks.
The questions are justified: Microsoft has made much of its accelerated development and release schedule for Windows updates. Those updates are far more than collections of bug fixes, like the now-discarded service packs, but include improvements, enhancements, and new features and software.
If Microsoft's pushing hard to launch major Windows updates each year, why waste a sixth of that time sitting on them?
"This is all about protecting the back-to-school cycle," said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. "Even if this is a violation of the rapid-release concept, it's necessary. Back-to-school just hit the channel a few weeks ago."
As Moorhead saw it, if Microsoft offered Windows 8.1 to current Windows 8 users as soon as it was finished, back-to-school computer and tablet shoppers would have heard of the update, then either be disappointed when they went to retail and found no Windows 8.1 hardware, or even more damning, turned that disappointment into sales for rival platforms, like Apple's OS X or Google's Chrome OS.
"People don't postpone back-to-school [computer purchases]," Moorhead said.
Wes Miller of Directions on Microsoft also viewed the delay between RTM and what Microsoft dubs GA (general availability) as understandable, but picked the holiday selling season as Microsoft's rationale.
"Some people thought that Microsoft would release [Windows 8.1] immediately, but I thought that a little strange," Miller said. "Microsoft classically releases products two times a year, back-to-school and holidays. But back-to-school isn't what it used to be. Everybody goes for the holidays now."
As long as Microsoft got Windows 8.1 into retail -- with its own and OEM hardware paramount -- between mid-October and Black Friday, the bruising day after the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S., it would be primed for the end-of-the-year sales season, Miller said.
The two months between RTM and Oct. 18 are needed by OEMs to test Windows 8.1 on current hardware and wrap up work on new devices that take advantage of the update, including the smaller-screen tablets it allows.
"There's a fair amount of new stuff in Windows 8.1, including support for Miracast and Wi-Fi Direct printing," said Miller, citing two examples of the new features that hardware makers will want to support.
Moorhead agreed that the two months won't be wasted, but are needed by hardware makers to conduct testing of the update on old and new devices. "Consumers will expect 8.1 to work flawlessly on all those platforms," he said. Minus that testing -- if, say, Microsoft had offered Windows 8.1 to all current Windows 8 device owners right after RTM -- OEMs might have been flooded with support calls if glitches surfaced.
OEMs would have mentioned those concerns to Microsoft. And with the bulk of Windows licenses sold to computer makers, not direct to customers for in-place upgrades, Microsoft would be sure to listen.
Moorhead also cited Microsoft's reluctance to give some OEMs an advantage as another partner-related reason why it's withholding Windows 8.1.
"They want to keep a relatively even playing field among OEMs," said Moorhead. "Some could flip 8.1 quickly. System builders could have PCs ready almost instantly, but Microsoft has never wanted to give a huge advantage to one class. They especially don't want to put their big OEMs at a disadvantage."
There are other reasons, the experts added, that tip the scale toward later, not sooner.
"In any case, Microsoft will really want to do a lot of PR [between RTM and GA]," said Miller. "I think they're just trying to be conservative and keep focused on the fourth quarter."
One group that has typically had early access to a new version of Windows -- developers and enterprise IT professionals -- are waiting to hear how they'll be treated under the new regime.
Some veteran Microsoft watchers, such as ZDNet blogger Mary Jo Foley, have said their sources reported that MSDN (Microsoft Developer Network) and TechNet subscribers won't get Windows 8.1 before October.
If true, that would be a blunder. "That would be a mistake," Miller said. "They have to get it out there as soon as possible." Instead, said Miller, app developers should get an early look at Windows 8.1 final code so they can test their apps against the update and start work on revisions -- and new apps -- that take advantage of 8.1's new features and functionality.
Microsoft on Wednesday declined to comment on MSDN and TechNet subscriber access to Windows 8.1 RTM, but seemed to leave the door open when a spokeswoman said the company would "have more to share in the coming weeks."