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Windows 8.1: What's in a name (and why it matters)

Gregg Keizer | April 8, 2013
The name for this summer's first rapid-response OS upgrade raises questions on future support, licensing

The more information that leaks about Windows 8's expected summer upgrade, dubbed "Blue" by Microsoft, the more questions that pop up, analysts said today.

And with very few exceptions, customers don't have answers.

The latest tidbit about Windows Blue -- disclosed earlier this week -- was that the upgrade would be named "Windows 8.1," a convention reminiscent of rival Apple's system of numbering its versions of OS X as, for example, 10.7 for Lion, 10.8 for Mountain Lion.

Apple then adds a third number to signal each update. Mountain Lion, for instance, is currently at 10.8.3, meaning it has been updated three times since its July 2012 debut.

Calling the first upgrade Windows 8.1 may not seem important, but to analysts well-versed in Microsoft-ese, names matter.

"How you use numbers in naming conventions is important," argued M3 Sweatt, who works in a Microsoft group aimed at improving partner and customer satisfaction, on Twitter Tuesday.

The experts agreed: Microsoft's licensing policies, but more importantly its support practices, are linked to names, or more specifically, name changes.

As soon as an enterprise places newly-named Windows Server software into production, it must also immediately update all CALs (Client Access Licenses), the rights required for individual client PCs -- desktops, notebook, tablets -- said Wes Miller of Directions on Microsoft.

That's why he and others at the research firm believe that Microsoft will not dare to name an upgraded server OS something like "Windows Server 2013," but will instead stick with "Windows Server 2012" as the name even after the code also gets a Blue project refresh this summer. The most likely moniker is Windows Server 2012 R2, the analysts said, because the "R2" designation has been used before by Microsoft and doesn't trigger the new-CAL requirement.

On the desktop, licensing has less effect, mainly because relatively few enterprises carry Software Assurance, the annuity plan that provides rights to future upgrades, on the client OS. But there may be some support fallout from a name change.

Microsoft has historically issued Service Packs (SP) for Windows, collections of bug fixes that sometimes also include new features. Those SPs always started a clock that gave customers 24 months to upgrade from the prior version -- either the original, termed RTM, for "release to manufacturing," or an earlier service pack -- to the new SP.

In fact, Microsoft will do just that next week, as it retires Windows 7 RTM and supports only Windows 7 SP1, the upgrade that launched in early February 2011.

But SPs are apparently persona non grata, to be replaced by Blue and Microsoft's plan to pick up the release pace.


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