Is a new version of Windows 8 coming ... every year?

Microsoft reportedly will release its next version of Windows, code-named Blue, in less than a year. The yearly upgrade approach has a precedent: Windows Live

Back in August, citing unnamed sources, Mary Jo Foley talked about an update to Windows 8, code-named "Blue," that's due to be released next year. Last week, also citing unnamed sources, Tom Warren repeated the rumors, adding "yearly upgrades will be the norm for Windows soon." Given what we've seen of Windows 8, those predictions seem likely. Indeed, they have a precedent. It was called Windows Live.

Consider: Windows 8 presented few improvements to the legacy Windows 7-style desktop. Microsoft added a few new features to the desktop, lopped off a couple, and modified the interface on a handful of desktop programs, but by and large the plumbing stayed the same. It's highly unlikely Microsoft will invest much more time and effort in improving -- or even modifying -- the legacy desktop, although it's direly needed. Stick a fork in it.

The part of Windows that will get the lion's share of attention in the next version, of course, is Metro. You have to ask yourself exactly what Microsoft can or will do to Metro. It's likely we're looking at two major changes.

First, Windows RT (the programming API) will doubtless see extensions in Blue. One likely target: migrating Metro apps to Windows Phone 8, in many cases a highly nontrivial process (if you're stuck, you can take a Harvard Extension School course that covers the high points). Warren referred to this in a confusing way:

Once Windows Blue is released, the Windows SDK will be updated to support the new release and Microsoft will stop accepting apps that are built specifically for Windows 8, pushing developers to create apps for Blue. Windows 8 apps will continue to run on Blue despite the planned SDK changes.

If I read that correctly, there's a push on to create a single Windows 8 SDK that will work with Windows 8, Windows RT, and Windows Phone 8. Once Blue is released, all new Windows Store apps will be required to work on all three platforms. At least, I think that's what he's saying.

Second, Microsoft has to do something about the horrible state of the existing Metro apps. There was a time when I assumed Microsoft would dribble out feature updates as they became available. As soon as Metro Mail could handle POP3 accounts, for example, I expected that there would be an updated version of Metro Mail released through the Windows Store. When Metro Photos could correct red-eye, say, I would expect a new Photos app.

Now I'm beginning to think Microsoft will save its big push for improved Metro features until Blue is complete. It's the same pattern we saw years ago with Windows Live. When Windows Live was released in November 2005, it was hailed as a way for Microsoft to update key applications asynchronously with the operating system. When a new version of Windows Live Messenger became available, say, Microsoft could ship it without waiting for the next version of Windows; a new version of Windows Live Mail didn't have to wait for Windows or for Messenger.

It was a good concept, but after a year or two, the asynchronicity disappeared. Instead of individual Windows Live apps getting updated individually when ready, Microsoft held a bunch of them and released new versions in "waves": Windows Live Wave 2, Windows Live Wave 3, etc. We're currently up to Windows Live (or Windows formerly Live) Wave 5. It would make a great deal of sense for Blue to roll out in similar Waves of updated Metro apps.

We could look forward to a new Wave of Metro apps -- and thus a new version of Blue -- every year in time for the holidays. Microsoft could charge a small fee for the Wave, thus pulling in subscription-style annual income without selling subscriptions. In the consumer sphere, Microsoft could also use the new Waves to identify pirated copies of Windows, with a customer needing to have "genuine" Windows in order to install the new Wave.

Microsoft could produce the Waves relatively easily, with no earth-shaking changes to the core programs and lots of time to make gorgeous, full-screen Metro experiences fast and fluid.

There's some speculation about the branding for such a model. Will these new Apple-style annual upgrades be marketed as new versions of Windows, as Service Packs, or as .1 releases, e.g. Windows 8.1 or 8.2? Hard to say. Perhaps we'll see Windows 8 Pro Mountain Lion or Windows Phone 8 Ice Cream Sandwich.

This story, "Is a new version of Windows 8 coming ... every year?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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