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Thanks to customer feedback and "an unparalleled level of collaboration across product teams," Windows 8.1 has reached the release-to-manufacturing (RTM) stage "in a very short time," said Antoine Leblond, Microsoft's corporate VP of Windows Program Management, in a statement. He noted that the upgrade will reach OEMs only 10 months after Windows 8 launched, adding that manufacturers will soon offer new Windows devices that range from "the smallest tablets to the most lightweight notebooks to versatile 2-in-1s, as well as industry devices designed for business."
Leblond's tone is notable in that it echoes so many of the strategic points outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer has made throughout the last year: Windows must offer a unified experience that spans devices, Microsoft is establishing a more collaborative culture to facilitate this goal, trends toward consumerization and mobility mean Windows updates will have to arrive much more rapidly than in the past, and so on.
[ Most tablet users still prefer to use a keyboard, but that alone isn't enough to save Windows 8. Read Windows 8 Won't Be Saved By Keyboards. ]
Ballmer shocked the tech industry last week when he unexpectedly announced that he would retire within the next year. Less than six weeks earlier, Ballmer reorganized the company to better facilitate its new "devices and services" persona, a strategic shift he announced the previous fall.
When Ballmer disclosed his retirement plans, he said the company needed someone who could shepherd the transition for the long term. But reports have since indicated that the Microsoft board has doubts about Ballmer's plan, especially after the company's most recent fiscal reports confirmed two of shareholders' most unsettling fears: that Microsoft's Surface tablets have been a debacle, and that Windows 8's sluggish adoption and the slumping PC market have finally begun to take a toll on Microsoft's bottom line. As such, commentators have started to question whether Microsoft will hire a CEO who can facilitate Ballmer's "one Microsoft" plan or whether it will opt for a more radical shake-up.
At least for now, though, Microsoft appears to be staying the course. The rhetoric the company used in July when Windows 8.1 was released as a public preview is essentially the same that Leblond used on Monday, despite all the financial and organizational changes that have occurred in the interim.
When Windows 8.1 arrives, it will usher in a host of enhancements and tweaks, including improved core apps, a more customizable interface and the ability to boot directly to the desktop. Microsoft hopes the refinements to the OS's Modern UI will help it gain tablet market share among consumers this holiday season, and that enterprises will start adopting Windows 8.1 in 2014, when many of them will upgrade retiring Windows XP systems.
When Microsoft released the Windows 8.1 preview, analysts were cautiously optimistic that the OS was making the right moves to address user concerns. But according to Forrester analyst David Johnson, interest in Windows 8.1 hasn't improved much in the meantime.
"Windows 8.1 has not impressed anyone that I've spoken with," he said in an interview on Monday. Johnson stated that enterprise users want a Start menu that functions like the one in Windows 7, not Windows 8.1's ersatz version, which redirects to an "All Apps" view.
Johnson said that Microsoft hasn't submitted to this demand because doing so would conflict with the company's desire to usher users toward the Modern UI, which plays a central role in both the company's mobility strategy and Steve Ballmer's larger "one Microsoft" vision.
At least a few people are eager to get their hands on Windows 8.1, however. Last year, the company released Windows 8 early to qualifying IT professionals. This time it is withholding Windows 8.1 from everyone except OEMs until release. In a comments thread following Leblond's statement, some commenters voiced their disapproval with the decision, arguing that Microsoft is neglecting its base of IT pros and that TechNet and MSDN subscribers should have early access for testing, as they have in the past.
Leblond replied in the comments that Microsoft isn't releasing Windows 8.1 early because it is continuing to "put the finishing touches on Windows 8.1."