Developers cry foul as PC, tablet makers get Windows 8.1

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Microsoft has started sending Windows 8.1 to its hardware manufacturers, hitting the so-called RTM milestone for the much-awaited update to Windows 8.

Both Windows 8.1 for x86 machines and Windows RT 8.1 for ARM-based devices have begun shipping to makers of PCs, tablets and laptops, Microsoft said via a blog Tuesday.

However, commercial and enterprise developers, as well as other IT pros, will have to wait until mid-October to get their hands on the OS update, prompting a chorus of boos from them.

Why the wait

In the past, the RTM release also meant the OS was ready “for broader customer use,” but that’s changed now, in part because the OS has to work with such a broad variety of devices, wrote Microsoft official Antoine Leblond.

“As such, we’ve had to evolve the way we develop and the time in which we deliver to meet customers with the experience they need, want and expect. We’ve had to work closer to our hardware partners than ever before,” he wrote.

Via comments to the blog post, response from developers and enterprise IT customers has been swift and almost entirely negative.

“How are we supposed to test our software for Windows 8.1? The day it will be automatically installed on users’ machines? So we—software developers—can take blame that applications don’t work on Windows 8.1?,” wrote one person.

Another one echoed the sentiment: “Most of us actually want to support Windows 8.1, a lot of us want to get apps ready for the awesome 8.1 features, but we can’t properly do that unless we get the RTM bits before the public gets the Windows 8.1 update.”

In a response to one of the developers commenting on his post, a Microsoft moderator wrote: “We are continuing to put the finishing touches on Windows 8.1 to ensure a quality experience at general availability for (all) customers.”

Meanwhile, Microsoft downplayed the outcry, portraying it as much ado about nothing.

“For developers who want to begin building and testing apps for Windows 8.1, they already have all the tools they need using Visual Studio 2013 Preview and Windows 8.1 Preview,” the company said in an emailed statement.

Windows 8.1 Preview is an earlier version of the OS update that was released at the end of June during the company’s Build developer conference. Visual Studio 2013, the newest version of that application development product, is due to ship before year’s end.

In the statement, Microsoft also said it is moving “to a world of more continuous updates delivered in-product” and that this “rapid release schedule” results in faster access to updates for customers, including developers.

By shipping the OS to hardware makers now, Windows 8.1 devices will be ready in time for the year-end holidays, according to Leblond.

“Over the next several months we’ll see beautiful, powerful devices, from the smallest tablets to the most lightweight notebooks to versatile 2-in-1s, as well as industry devices designed for business,” he wrote.

Windows 8.1 is slated for shipping Oct. 18, when it will be “broadly available for commercial customers with or without volume licensing agreements, our broad partner ecosystem, subscribers to MSDN and TechNet, as well as consumers.”

Michael Silver, a Gartner analyst, said Microsoft met the date for sending Windows code to hardware makers, but breaking with tradition and not making it available to developers and IT pros via MSDN (Microsoft Developer Network) and TechNet creates potential problems for subscribers to those programs.

“Not distributing the code beyond OEMs until October buys Microsoft 7 more weeks to work on it and fix things before users actually get it. This is good for Microsoft because the extra time allows it to make improvements and potentially get better reviews,” Silver said via email.

“But it also means organizations get 7 fewer weeks to work on it and with less time between new releases, every week counts. Serious work on projects like evaluating a new release of Windows usually decline during the holidays,” he added.

What's at stake for Windows 8.1

Billed as one of the company’s most critical products, Windows 8 started shipping in October of last year, sporting a drastically different user interface. That Modern interface based on tile icons was optimized for touchscreen devices to make Windows a better OS for tablets and improve its position against Apple’s iOS and Android.

However, complaints from consumers and enterprise users rained down on Microsoft over a variety of issues, including the learning curve for users to get comfortable and familiar with the new interface.

In Windows 8.1, Microsoft is trying to address that and other main objections. For example, it’s adding something very close to the Windows 7 Start button, which the company took away in Windows 8.

With Windows 8.1, Microsoft will also attempt to improve the interplay between the new Modern interface and the more traditional Windows 7-like desktop, which lets users run legacy applications. For example, it will be possible for users to boot directly to the traditional desktop interface, and toggling between the two will supposedly be smoother.

In Windows 8.1, users will also be able to view all the applications installed on their device and sort them by name, date installed, most used or category. It will also have an improved search engine powered by Bing that will return results from a variety of sources, including the Web, applications, local files and the SkyDrive cloud storage service.

Also new are options for seeing multiple applications on the screen simultaneously, including the ability to resize apps, for improved multitasking. Windows 8.1 also comes with Internet Explorer 11, a new version of Microsoft’s browser that the company has said will load pages faster and offer better performance in touchscreen mode.

Windows 8.1 users will also be able to make a Skype call and take photos with the Windows 8.1 device while the screen is in Lock mode without having to log in. It will be possible as well for users to select multiple applications at once and perform bulk actions on them, like resizing, uninstalling and rearranging them.

Updated at 12:30 p.m. PT with comment from Microsoft.

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