Microsoft has confirmed that its upcoming Windows Blue operating system will launch under the name Windows 8.1, and that it will be free for all users of existing Windows 8 products.
First hinted back in February
when a job advert went live asking for a software development engineer to work on an at-the-time unannounced product dubbed Windows Blue, numerous leaks
have provided a tantalising glimpse of Microsoft's plans for the next-generation operating system. Sitting somewhere between a full release and a Service Pack, Windows Blue is thought to be part of the company's plans to better compete with rival Apple through a more rapid release schedule: rather than launching a full operating system refresh every three to five years at a high price, Blue will be followed by annual updates at a much lower cost.
While that fact has not yet been confirmed by Microsoft, which is playing its cards as close to its chest as possible when everything it does gets leaked all over the place, the company has confirmed an earlier rumour: Windows 8.1 will be made available to Windows 8 users as a free update.
Speaking at the JP Morgan Technology, Media & Telecoms Conference, Microsoft's Tami Reller - chief marketing officer and chief financial officer of the company's Windows arm - stated outright that Windows 8.1 will launch as a free upgrade for Windows 8 and Windows RT users. Reller also confirmed that a public preview of the upgrade will be released at Microsoft's annual Build conference in June, ahead of a full launch scheduled for a pre-Christmas window.
While not a ground-up redesign of the operating system and its divisive Modern UI - based on the tile-style Metro UI first developed for Microsoft Windows Phone platform - Windows 8.1 is expected to bring numerous improvements to the user experience
for those who interact with their systems using a keyboard and mouse. Although Microsoft's focus remains on creating a user interface that works well with touch-screen devices, it's clear the company is listening to feedback regarding the difficulties less technical users have in making the migration from the WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus and Pointers) experience of Windows 7 and prior to the more gesture-driven Windows 8.
What Reller did not disclose is how the launch of Windows 8.1 will affect retail pricing and availability. It is though that Windows 8.1 SKUs (Stock Keeping Units) will simply replace Windows 8 SKUs - meaning there'll be a Windows 8.1, Windows 8.1 Pro and Windows 8.1 Enterprise, along with Windows RT.1 or however the company decides to massage the version number into its OEM-only product's name. As a result, pricing for retail releases of Windows 8.1 should remain the same as that of Windows 8 - and there's unlikely to be a repeat of the cut-price offer that saw users upgrading from Windows 7 to Windows 8 for as little as £15.