Microsoft continued apologizing for its past behavior by announcing that retail copies of Windows 8.1 will be available in standalone, full versions of the software, rather than as upgrades from previous versions of Windows.
Unfortunately, pricing for the new Windows 8.1 editions will match that of Windows 8: $120 for Windows 8.1 by itself, and $200 for the Pro edition. If you already have Windows 8 or Windows 8.1 and wish to upgrade to the Pro version, you can still do so for $100. There’s also a $10 upgrade for Pro users who want to add Media Center functionality.
But with Windows 8.1, Microsoft will make two important changes. First, users have the option of buying either an upgrade code for digital download or a retail DVD. That allows traditionalists the option of a physical disc in case of a hard disk crash. But the standalone option also should offer customers the alternative of building a new, low-cost PC upon which they can run Windows 8.1.
“This shift allows more flexibility for customers in specific technical scenarios and is in response to feedback we’ve received,” Windows blogger Brandon LeBlanc wrote in a Tuesday blog post. “It will be easier for those consumers who want to build PCs from scratch, run Windows 8.1 in Virtual Machine (VM) environments, or run Windows 8.1 on a second hard drive partition.”
Users who already own Windows 8 will receive Windows 8.1 as a free upgrade from the Windows Store. Users who install “fresh” copies of the Windows 8.1 OS shouldn’t have to worry about reinstalling any apps or settings. Users who have already downloaded the Windows 8.1 preview onto their Windows 8 machines will have to reinstall their applications, however.
After introducing the Metro motif into Windows 8, Microsoft has spent the succeeding months walking back certain design elements: allowing users to boot directly into the familiar Windows desktop, redesigning how applications are listed under the Start page, and numerous other changes that make Windows 8.1 a sort of “do over” for the company. As LeBlanc had noted, users had complained that Microsoft hadn’t offered a standalone version of Windows 8.
Microsoft said that the new standalone version of Windows 8.1 will work with Windows 7 PCs, although users will have to reinstall their desktop apps. Users can try and install Windows 8.1 over an existing Windows XP or Vista installation, but Microsoft recommended that they use the installation disc and be prepared to reinstall files, settings, and apps from one system to another.
Microsoft’s change in policy will also be welcomed by the DIY or homebrew community, which has, at least anecdotally, shrunk somewhat as PC prices have come down and users have turned to self-contained notebooks rather than easily upgradable desktops. In May, research firm IDC said that it expects tablets to outsell desktops and tablets combined by 2015. IDC said that it expects desktop PC sales to decline from 134 million to 123 million PCs from now through 2015, as well.
“If you count all use models, net out ‘professional DIY’ (mom-and-pop and local PC stores building computers), and include the home DIY ‘upgrade’ market, I would estimate the global market for DIY is approximately $9 billion,” Ted Pollak, an analyst with Jon Peddie Research, wrote in an email. “Add another billion if you want to include the “professional DIY” market.”
(With Windows 8, Microsoft sold somewhat ambiguous “System Builder” versions that essentially allowed users to build their own PCs around Windows 8. On the surface, however, the software was geared more toward small businesses.)
Windows 8.1 Enterprise now available
Microsoft also said separately that it would grant access to Windows 8.1 Enterprise to TechNet and MSDN subscribers, beginning Tuesday.
“[T]he primary objective in making Windows 8.1 RTM bits available on TechNet and MSDN is so developers and businesses can continue testing the latest version of the operating system as our engineering teams refine and update the product and tools in preparation for Windows 8.1 general availability,” wrote Erwin Visser, general manager of Windows Commercial. “And once GA bits are available, you will be ready to conduct final testing and begin your deployment of Windows 8.1. Testing your operating system for compatibility with existing applications and better understanding what needs to be done to migrate your business—especially for those organizations still on Windows XP—is paramount.”
The key date for businesses is April 18. 2014 when Microsoft ceases supporting Windows XP. While Microsoft hopes that enterprises will transition off of Windows XP onto Windows 8, some are proposing alternative strategies: the city of Munich, Germany, is handing out copies of Ubuntu Linux, for example.
This story was updated at 3:26 PM PT with additional details from analyst Ted Pollak.
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As PCWorld's senior editor, Mark focuses on Microsoft news and chip technology, among other beats. He has formerly written for PCMag, BYTE, Slashdot, eWEEK, and ReadWrite.