What to expect from the Windows 8 rollout

Woody LeonhardBy Woody Leonhard
On the first day of August, Microsoft announced that its final, final version of Windows 8 is ready. (The announcement came just as the this newsletter was about to be sent out.)

Drawing on the announcement and a little bit of history, here's what's likely to happen as Windows 8 makes its way to store shelves.

Final code: Windows 8's RTM and what follows
As just announced in a Microsoft Windows blog, Windows 8 has reached released to manufacturing (RTM). Many of you have written to me — asking what, precisely, that milestone means. Let me try to answer that by blending some previous Windows-launch history with what we expect will happen this time around.
RTM is a specific version — a specific build — of the product. It isn't a date. Once upon a time, RTM was the version Microsoft declared as finished (or gold), signifying that it could be shipped to the CD manufacturers (thus "to manufacturing") who would duplicate the discs, stick them into shrink-wrapped boxes, and ship them to retailers.
Windows 8 RTM is different from previous releases of Windows. In particular, there's no "manufacturing" in the sense of shrink-wrapped boxes. The blog makes it clear that Microsoft will dribble out the Win8 RTM code to developers (via MSDN and TechNet), PC manufacturers, and corporate customers though August. General release is still set for Oct. 26.
Soon after the RTM version is set, hardware manufacturers (OEMs) will run final tests and start manufacturing new Windows 8 PCs. Historically, soon after OEMs receive the finished code, leaked copies start showing up in public. (Microsoft's largest customers also get gold code about the same time as OEMs, providing another source for leaked code.)
Starting Aug. 15, anyone with a MSDN or TechNet subscription will be able to download the Windows 8 RTM code. (I talked about TechNet in a July 1, 2010, column.) I bet that, within a day or two of Win8's appearance on the MS tech sites, more than a million copies will be out in the wild.
Distributing Win8: The end of the box?
Most of us who upgrade to Win8 from Windows XP, Vista, or Win7 will buy a product key and then use the "online-upgrade experience" to move up to Windows 8 — all you need is an upgrade key and an Internet connection.
Given past Windows releases, it's easy to be skeptical about the ease of upgrading a new version of Windows on top of an older one — and the quality of the new OS after an in-place installation. For decades, I recommended avoiding in-place upgrades and performing only clean installs of new Windows versions. But the Windows 8 online-upgrade process is a finely engineered combination of compatibility checking, data backup and restoration, and OS upgrade — with a bit of driver magic thrown in.
After going through an update-compatibility scan and giving you a chance to back up anything that won't be handled automatically, the online-upgrade system downloads only those files needed to perform the upgrade. The process is almost entirely automated, and you can ask the installer to create a custom, bootable, Win8 installation DVD just in case.
As yet unknown is Microsoft's Win8-installation solution for PC users still using dial-up connections to the Internet. I also hope Microsoft has a reasonable solution for anyone unknowingly running a pirated copy of Windows.
And what are the options if you're not upgrading from an older Windows version? For those who prefer building their own PC or who are installing Win8 on a Linux (or non-upgradeable) system — or who are setting up a dual-boot configuration with Windows, Mac, or Linux — Microsoft reportedly will offer a System Builder edition. (Ed Bott has an excellent overview on his ZDNet blog.) There's no announced price for Win8 SB, but it could be a boon for those of us who've dealt with Windows licensing inanities over the years. Chances are good that the Win8 versions posted on MSDN and TechNet will be System Builder editions.
General availability: Win8 is offered to all
As noted above, Windows 8 and Windows RT will hit general availability on Oct. 26. In the days of CD and DVD installations, the "general availability" date was something of an artificial construct — it could take days or weeks for retail stores to keep up with the initial demand. But with online installation, Oct. 26 could truly be the day Microsoft opens the floodgates (assuming its servers can keep up with demand).
Microsoft isn't taking any chances with the Win8 launch, from a price perspective. It announced a special promotion: from general availability through the end of January 2013, many Windows users will be able to purchase the Win8 Pro upgrade for U.S. $40. (Microsoft promised a packaged DVD version for $70.) As a bonus, if you use the promotion, you can add Windows Media Center for free.
(Some in the media claim that this is the cheapest version of Windows in recent history. Hogwash. Windows 8 might go up in price after January (or Microsoft might extend the special price indefinitely). Right now, you can buy a three-pack of Windows 7 Home Premium upgrades from Amazon for $118. But I digress.)
It appears that Microsoft really has trimmed the "versionitis" that has haunted Windows for years. Here's what I think Microsoft will offer:
  • Windows 8 online upgrade from Windows XP, Vista, or Win7: Microsoft hasn't announced pricing, but with Windows 8 Pro online upgrades at $39.99, clearly MS wants to sell you the Pro version.

  • Windows 8 Pro online upgrade from Windows XP, Vista, or Win7. As mentioned earlier, anyone who's running a genuine copy of WinXP, Vista, or Win7 can upgrade to Win8 Pro for just U.S. $40. If you upgrade XP, Vista, or Win7 PC this way, you can also install Windows Media Center for free. If you purchased a new Windows 7 PC after June 2, you can upgrade to Win8 Pro for $14.99, apparently using this same technique.

  • Windows 8 upgrade to Windows 8 Pro with Media Center. If you have Windows 8 and you want to get all of the features of Pro, you can buy the Windows 8 Pro Pack upgrade. No word on pricing yet, but the Pro Pack upgrade includes Windows Media Center.

  • Windows 8 System Builder has been announced, but there are almost no details. As already mentioned, if you download Win8 from MSDN or TechNet, this is likely to be the version. It won't require an older version of Windows already installed; it'll load onto a bare drive, in a virtual machine, or in dual-boot configuration. The price is still to come from Microsoft. Apparently, there will be both Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro versions, but I wonder whether Microsoft will rethink that scenario before everything gets set in concrete.
Hard to believe, but those are all the choices for Intel- and AMD-based PCs. Short and sweet. There might be a rare instance where someone gets Windows 8 Pro and wants to pay for the Pro Pack with Windows Media Center, but I don't see that happening very often — simply because of the way Microsoft has structured the upgrades.
All these changes are a tremendous improvement over previous Windows releases.
Keeping up with the new hardware
Microsoft will undoubtedly sell millions of Win8 copies when it opens the gates for online, public distribution. But I don't think it's going to immediately take the general Windows populace by storm. Many Windows users are still getting comfortable with Windows 7, and they'll put off yet another upgrade until they get new, touch-enabled hardware. There's a lot to be said for that approach.
But the hardware is where things could actually get interesting — maybe even exciting. According to a Maximum PC article, Intel has announced that, at about the time Windows 8 is widely available, there will be 140 new Ultrabooks offered by various manufacturers — all based on Intel's new Ivy Bridge chip. More than 40 of those new models will be touch-sensitive.
I'll readily confess I don't care much for Ultrabooks; they're too expensive and don't hit a niche that I need to have scratched. (Sales of current Ultrabooks have been dismal.) But a good multitouch Ultrabook with long battery life running Windows 8 Pro might (just might) be worth examining.
Of more interest, especially given the success of the iPad, is the potential of ARM-based tablets/convertibles and Windows RT. At this point, we know almost nothing about this class of hardware and software. The Microsoft Surface Windows RT tablets are promised for General Availability — you should, in theory, be able to buy one Oct. 26 — but there are so many unanswered questions that it's hard for me to get very excited about it. (I talked about Windows RT and the Surface RT tablet in the June 27 Top Story.)
We know this for sure: all Windows RT tablets will run a preview version of Office 2013 RT, and it will run on something that looks a little like the old-fashioned Windows 7 desktop. But we don't know precisely what Office 2013 RT contains — nobody has seen it in a public setting. Last week, Office VP P.J. Hough assured TechRadar that the Office 2013 RT apps are basically identical to the Office 2013 apps on Windows 8. "For the apps that are on Windows — Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote — you would not have seen any perceivable difference."
We also don't have any idea what else will run on the Windows RT desktop, but it seems likely that File Explorer (the new name for Windows Explorer), at least some of the Control Panel, and possibly Internet Explorer 10 will live there. That last item seems a bit prophetic right now; the European Union has launched an investigation into how and why Microsoft dropped the browser opt-in screen from Windows 7 SP1 (in violation of MS's agreement with the EU) and what Microsoft intends to do with Windows 8. Microsoft could get jabbed for billions of dollars in fines for its transgressions — and might even be forced to put some sort of browser choice in Windows RT.
So that's how things should roll out, starting Aug. 15 and extending well into the holiday buying season. It's going to be a fascinating ride.
Frankly, unless Microsoft has some spectacular Metro apps up its sleeve — the current preview versions of Mail, Calendar, People, SkyDrive, and Photos are all horribly stunted; the Music and Video are laughable — I don't see Windows 8 or Windows RT making it to the top of many holiday shopping lists. A year from now, things will be different. But you have to wonder how much more consumer-market share Microsoft will lose in the interim.