If a source close to Microsoft is to be believed, Windows Blue is a lot more than just annual updates to Windows 8 — it’s a massive shift towards regular updates for almost every Microsoft product, including Windows Phone, Windows Server, and online services such as Hotmail and SkyDrive.
Historically, Microsoft’s major products have usually been on a 3ish-year release cycle. This is a fairly standard timeframe in the software development world, especially when it comes to operating systems and productivity suites that need to be rigorously tested before being deployed on hundreds of millions of computers. Fast forward to today, though, and three years is quite literally a technological lifetime. So much can happen in three years that it’s virtually impossible for Microsoft to release a contemporary OS. In the time that it took Microsoft to fix Vista and release Windows 7, Facebook went from a few thousand users to 300 million users, and Apple released the first — and two more iterations — of the iPhone. Windows 8 began development before the initial release of the iPad — before the tablet market even existed — and wasn’t launched until after the iPad 3, by which point Apple had already won.
In short, it’s no surprise that Microsoft is moving Windows 8, Windows Phone, Windows Server, and its online services to an annual release cycle. Every single one of Microsoft’s competitors in the consumer space — Android, iOS, OS X — is on an annual-or-faster release schedule. The only way that Microsoft can hope to compete in the smartphone and tablet markets is if it can outmaneuver the competition, and that’s virtually impossible without a rapid release schedule. It’s a little unclear what the Blue update to Windows Server will entail, and likewise, web services like SkyDrive and Hotmail are already updated fairly often.
Blue, then, represents a huge internal shift for Microsoft, but it’s also a big change for OEMs and the entire PC industry as well. As far as we know, Microsoft is still on schedule to release Windows Blue in mid-2013 (for free or cheap), and it will probably be available through the Windows Store — bad news for OEMs hoping to sell new hardware on the back of a new OS. ZDNet’s source says that the Windows Phone, Server, and online service updates will arrive around the same time, but except for a couple of Metro-related rumors, no one knows what these updates will entail. Presumably they will be small tweaks, though, much like iOS or OS X’s yearly updates. New features might be added, but don’t expect any major interface changes — Microsoft is clearly set on a unified Metro experience across desktop, tablet, phone, and probably the game console too.
Moving forward, ZDNet says that Windows 9 is still on the roadmap — though we have no idea when it’ll land — and it isn’t clear if it’s a major update, or something that will be rolled out as part of Windows Blue. Curiously, there hasn’t been a single leak, rumor, or mention of Windows Phone 9 on the internet. Perhaps that’s a good sign that Microsoft’s Blue smartphone efforts are in full swing: If there’s a product that needs to be updated regularly to have any chance of success, it’s Windows Phone. Personally, the bit I’m most excited about is the integration between all of Microsoft’s products and services: Rapid updates should mean that Microsoft can add a new feature to your Xbox 720, and quickly follow up with system-level updates that integrate that feature into Windows 8 and WP8.