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Is Microsoft's new mantra "ask and ye shall receive?" That's probably taking it too far, but Tami Reller, CFO and CMO of the company's Windows division, confirmed Tuesday morning that Windows Blue will be free to existing Windows 8 and Windows RT customers.
The news arrives fast on the heels of arguments from InformationWeek and others that the forthcoming update should be released at no cost.
Reller's remarks also add to previous confirmations that the next wave of Win8 devices will, unlike their expensive predecessors, include low-cost options. Together, the developments mean that of all the factors that have stunted Windows 8 adoption so far, prohibitive pricing will no longer be a problem. With that barrier removed, though, one all-important question still remains: Windows Blue might be free, but will it be any good?
Speaking at the JP Morgan Technology, Media & Telecom Conference, Reller divulged few details about the update's new or improved features. She did, however, confirm what industry observers have suspected since leaked Windows Blue builds began appearing online in March: The update will be called Windows 8.1.
[ For more thoughts on Microsoft's Windows 8.1 strategy, see Windows 8 Users See Red: Is Microsoft Listening? ]
The extent to which Win8.1 will tweak Microsoft's existing product has been a topic of frequent rumors and passionate debates. Will Redmond restore the Start Button or allow users to boot to the desktop? Will it continue herding users through the Live Tiles environment? Will the native apps be better? Will system controls be accessible in both interfaces? Reller didn't answer any of these questions but she reiterated that Blue will be out as a public preview by the time of Microsoft's Build conference, which starts in San Francisco on June 26. General availability is expected to follow in the fall.
By officially naming the update Windows 8.1, Microsoft suggests that it won't retreat from the bold redesign it implemented when Win8 launched last October. The OS's attempts to shoehorn a traditional desktop UI and a tablet-oriented UI into one package have been criticized as awkward and counterintuitive, but Redmond's ostensible dedication to the new look shouldn't be a surprise. Company representatives have described Microsoft's Win8 strategy as "principled but not stubborn," meaning Redmond leaders are receptive to user feedback but committed to their original vision. That's certainly the message VP of corporate communications Frank X. Shaw projected last Friday, when he rejected claims that Windows Blue would be an admission of Windows 8's failures.
Though Reller was mum on Windows 8.1's specific enhancements, she pointed out that the Win8 platform has now amassed more than 70,000 apps. That's still only about one-tenth the number of titles iOS and Android boast in their respective app stores, but it's nonetheless a marked improvement from the number available when Microsoft's new OS launched last fall. This growing app catalog also offers compatibility with legacy x86 apps to give Windows 8 a range of titles and functionality that competitors -- particularly those in the tablet space -- simply cannot match.
In addition to this progress on the app front, Microsoft also stands to benefit from the new Win8 devices that should hit the market throughout back-to-school and holiday seasons. The devices, which will range in size from large desktop units to ultra-mobile iPad Mini competitors, are expected to be both cheaper than current models and, thanks to new Intel chips, more powerful, more energy efficient, thinner and lighter. The stage is set, in other words, for Windows 8 to make a comeback -- as long as Win 8.1 delivers the goods.