Expect a season of new beginnings from Microsoft in 2014

The wave of product updates may be drawing to a close, but the very direction of Microsoft's technology is shifting this year

Typically, you might expect a year with big releases to be much more exciting than a lull year like we have coming up in 2014 in terms of Microsoft product releases. But nothing could be further from the truth.

We are seeing the retirement of not one, but two Microsoft fixures: Windows XP and Steve Ballmer. Technical assistance and upgrades cease for Windows XP on April 8, 2014. And Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft since 2000, will pass the torch on to a new, as-yet-unnamed leader. These two key changes alone are enough to ensure 2014 will be an exciting year.

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With Microsoft retiring XP and hammering home the fact it won't provide any more security fixes for the classic OS, many IT admins are scrambling to move their people to either Windows 7 or Windows 8.1. I expect to see Windows 7 become the front-runner for enterprise migration primarly because Windows 8.1 is so radically different in its UI, as it is designed for a touch interface that means a hefty investment in new PCs for most enterprises. Still, I expect to see Windows 8.1 systems enter the enterprise as new hardware is purchased, especially in the form of x86-based Windows 8 tablets such as Microsoft's Surface Pro 2 that support domain control and Group Policy.

Either way, the move off XP is going to be a key focus for most in 2014 -- and there's more coming.

Early in 2014 we'll see Exchange, SharePoint, and Office all getting Service Pack 1 updates. We will also see a major release: SQL Server 2014. I am expecting a Windows Phone 8.1 release in the spring that, according to rumors, will have a Siri-like assistant feature called Cortana. Around the time of the Windows Phone 8.1 release may come an update to Windows 8.1 (8.2, perhaps) that will finally return the full Start menu, according to the rumors. Apparently someone is yielding to reason (and the cry of the masses) for a more flexible desktop deployment of Windows 8. Had this been done from the outset, we might have seen enterprises migrate to Windows 8 rather than to Windows 7. C'est la vie.

We should also see steady changes in Microsoft's cloud-based offerings like Office 365 (SharePoint, Exchange, Lync, and subscription Office). No doubt we will continue to see a heavy focus on Azure improvements as more businesses look to cloud to replace their data centers. Whether that is truly the best move will be a big topic for debate in 2014 as well.

Because of Ballmer's retirement and the new management organization he put in place earlier this year, 2014 will also be when the "new" Microsoft solidifies and takes Ballmer's strategy of becoming a services-and-devices company into the next phase. The ultimate goal apparently is to have one core Windows with multiple versions. This next wave, code-named "Threshold," is still a long way off, but the interesting theme appears to be unification of Xbox One, Windows, and Windows Phone. That, combined with an increased push to subscription cloud services like Office 365 and Azure, could truly provide a "new and improved" Microsoft.

This process started in 2013, but we will see it truly take shape in 2014 -- an exciting year ahead indeed.

This story, "Expect a season of new beginnings from Microsoft in 2014," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of J. Peter Bruzzese's Enterprise Windows blog and follow the latest developments in Windows at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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