Score one for the Russian rumornets: Ed Bott has just reported that Windows 8.1 will go into general availability (GA, open to the general public) release at 12 AM in New Zealand (which Mr. Bott informs us is 4:00 AM in Redmond; that’s PST or -08:00 UCT). I blogged here last week about Russian language site Microsoftportal.net claiming that the OEM release could go out as early as August 16. Given that the date for GA has now been announced, and that it usually precedes GA by two months exactly, they were off by a day or two, at most. Bott confirms the overall timing, and indicates that “…my sources have also told me … that Windows 8.1 has been officially released to manufacturing.”
Today’s Blogging Windows post from Brandon LeBlanc shares the info that on October 17/18, MS will post the Windows 8.1 update for free on the Windows Store.
What’s interesting is that the rumor mill has been grinding thick and fast lately about when the OEM release will be made available via MSDN. I’ve read some sources that claim MS will skip this step and hold off on making the OEM release available until the GA date rolls around. Frankly, I don’t see how or why MS would choose to do this to developers, who need some time to get their applications ready for Windows 8.1 before it ships (or who conceivably might decide to build some new ones to coincide with the GA date). Bott catches my general take on this still-murky situation quite nicely when he says “There’s no indication in today’s consumer announcement of when the Windows 8.1 code will be available for developers on MSDN, nor when the Enterprise edition will be available for general release.” Just because MS isn’t saying anything about this yet doesn’t mean that nothing is going to happen until GA. Let’s hope Ed’s request for additional information produces some results sooner rather than later.
Microsoft’s brand-new “…by the Numbers” page presents a Modern UI tile-based interface to visitors and tracks counts of all kinds of interesting facts and trivia about the company. Here’s a representative screen cap of some of its leading facts and figures:
The tiles for “by the Numbers” are continuously updated, and cover number topics and tallies for Microsoft products, platforms, and other activity.
What you see in the preceding screen capture comes from the left hand side of this collection of counters and reported info, and covers from left to right, top to bottom):
- the Windows 8 overall license count (100 million plus, as shown)
- the current number of Windows Store apps and games (over 170,000)
- the number of MS Live accounts with associated SkyDrive storage (250 million plus)
- number of Xbox 360 consoles sold worldside (over 76 million)
- total minutes spent using Skype daily (up to 2 billion worldwide)
- total Microsoft employee donations to its Giving campaign (over $1 billion for 2013 so far)
- number of Xbox Live members (over 48 million in 41 countries)
- total number of Windows Store downloads so far (250 million app downloads)
- total user population for Enterprise social network Yammer (7 million)
- total active users for Outlook.com email service (over 400 million)
There are 20 more counters reported as you scroll right on this display, including information about various Microsoft training initiatives, Kinect and other Xbox gaming data, Office 365, and lots of other stuff. You can even learn that over 2.6 milion gallons of beverages are consumed on the MS campuses annually, of which 40% is Coke Zero. Other interesting items include the membership of the MS Partner organization (over 430,000) and the number of Office users around the world (over 1 billion). Check it out!
No matter how long I work with Windows stuff, I always keep learning something new. This morning, I picked up a rumor trace from Win8China, courtesy of Neowin.net (“Windows 8.1 build 9477 reportedly in the hand of OEMs ahead of RTM“). From that reporting, I absorbed some additional MS release terminology — namely “escrow stage,” which apparently refers to the point at which (in the language of the Neowin story) “features are now locked down” and the software goes off to OEMs for preliminary testing before the RTM stage is attained. Presumably also, in keeping with normal MS release numbering practice, that’s the point at which the release number will increment, and we can expect the version number to hit 9500 to signal “ready for prime time.”
From Build 9431 (preview) to Build 9477 (RTM escrow) to Build 9500 (RTM). Seems like a likely progression.
This step lends some additional credibility to the notion, already reported here and elsewhere, that the RTM date for Windows 8.1 might occur sooner than the final week of August (26-30). Some reports have guesstimated RTM as early as August 16, one week from today. Perhaps that is a bit ambitious, but it’s not inconceivable that RTM could occur some time during the following week (August 19-23). We’ll see!
Group Program Manager for Windows Security and Identity Dustin Ingalls recently posted an interesting item to the Windows for your Business blog, in the wake of his attendance at the Black Hat security conference. Entitled “Black Hat 2013: Windows 8.1 Helps Keep Data Secure in a Modern Environment,” it walks readers through a list of changes and enhancements to Windows 8.1 explicitly added or beefed up to improve the new operating systems’ security capabilities.
Following Black Hat 2013, MS opens up further on new or extended Win8.1 security stuff.
Here’s a list of topics with some detail summarized from that blog post:
- Trustworthy Hardware: MS is moving toward requiring support for a Trusted Platform Module (TPM), circuitry that provides enhanced cryptography, on-board secure storage for keys and certificates, and other strong security functions in future hardware (“We are working towards requiring TPM 2.0 on all devices by January 2015.”). Provides the foundation for improved security for BYOD situations.
- Modern Access Control: ways that IT can restrict physical access to devices. Biometrics will gain capacitive full fingerprint support on touchscreen devices using the app-based Settings widget, with biometrics now applicable to any Windows credential prompt of any kind (instead of during login only). Improved APIs for biometric support in Windows Apps, including WinRT.
- Multifactor Authentication for BYOD: Continued streamlining for managing Virtual Smart Cards (VCS) including support for enrollment and management in WinRT, with more controls over how devices connect to internal networks, and secure access controls for personal devices in BYOD situations.
- Trustworthy Identities and Devices: MS will seek to “increase the trustworthiness of the PKI by help manage and drive certificate best practices and adherence to standards…” This will include a daily scanning service for the top 2,000,000 SSL/TLS sites to look for anomalies or bad practices, and a requirement from servers or sevices to require attestation that private certificates and keys are protected by hardware (if not, access is denied — see the first bullet point above).
- Data Protection: In Win8.1 devices encryption applies to all editions for devices that support InstantGo, where Windows 8.1 Pro and Enterprise will also get the benefits of BitLocker, including BitLocker To Go, a network key protector, and automatic recovery key escrow in AD, plus a “remote wipe” capability that enables IT to delete sensitive data if a machine gets lost or stolen, or on BYOD machines (without affecting personal data).
- Malware Resistance: Windows Defender gains heuristics to monitor “bad behaviors” in memory, the registry, or the file system (before malware signatures get created or are available), and Internet Explorer gains the ability to screen binary extensions before they get loaded, along with default use of Enhanced Protection Mode in IE11.
It will be interesting to see how all this plays out, and how well the TPM requirements perform on systems that include such circuitry.
My nine year old son, Gregory, is suffering from techno-lust. He wants to buy a an XPS 27 Touch, a Dell 27″ All-in-One touchscreen PC that comes with Windows 8 pre-installed, along with 8 GB RAM, a 1 TB conventional hard disk, wireless 802.11n, Bluetooth, and a wireless keyboard and mouse. Because he likes to look at and contemplate his planned purchase — my wife and I have decided to provide a matching grant, where every dollar he saves will be matched by an equal contribution from the family exchequer — we drop in on the Microsoft store once or twice a month these days, so he can play with (and on) the demo versions of this system that they make available to prospective shoppers.
After we finished dinner at a nearby restaurant last Saturday night, we made the pilgrimage to the Microsoft Store so he could play with an XPS 27. While he was running through some Xbox games for the PC, I had a chance to chat with one of the senior sales staff in the store. We started talking about the Surface Pro, and I expressed my frustration that the units only came equipped with 4 GB of RAM and didn’t include a 256 GB SSD. Much to my surprise, my interlocutor informed me that one could indeed purchase a Surface Pro with 8 GB of RAM (it has a single SO-DIMM slot, apparently, and can be equipped with an 8 GB module) and a 256 GB SSD, on special order at a price of around $1,200.
That’s when I also learned that MS has recently given the sales staff more latitude to make deals with customers through their stores, and to offer more options on hardware configurations, bundles and packages, and even volume purchases for enterprises or organizations seeking to acquire Windows 8 computing platforms in bulk. It seems that for some time, the staff was prevented from engaging in “real sales” with bigger buyers or well-heeled customers, but that is apparently no longer the case. The recent mark-down on the Windows RT model of the Surface has also been accompanied by a more sales-oriented approach to wheeling and dealing in Microsoft’s retail arm. It will be interesting to see how Microsoft plans to let word on this change of philosophy make itself known to the marketplace. I have to believe I’m not the only person unaware of this recent development.
As for myself, I might have already bought a Surface Pro had I been able to get what I thought was unavailable earlier on. Given that Haswell-based Surface Pro units should be available by year’s end (or perhaps in tandem with the Windows 8.1 GA release in mid to late October), I may just decide to see how much of an additional mark-down I can wangle on a previous generation unit with the specs I wanted all along, and buy one of those instead. Only time will tell!
Although the exact date isn’t yet known, the OEM release for Windows 8.1 is likely to occur during the final week of the month. Given that the 26th of August is a Monday, it’s not impossible that this date could follow the OEM release for Windows 8 by exactly one year. OTOH, everybody hates Mondays, so the OEM release could easily fall a bit later in the week instead. But at least one source — Russian language site Microsoftportal.net — has claimed that the RTM (OEM release) date could fall as early as August 16th. In two to four weeks, we’ll know for sure!
The OEM release will be made public soon, probably during the final week of August (just like Windows 8 itself was).
What does the OEM release signal?
1. That the OS is final enough to hand over to equipment makers, who will start converting their OS builds to new images, and create the infrastructure necessary to pre-install lots of copies of 8.1 as part of their normal manufacturing process.
2. That the OS will be made available through MSDN and the Windows Store to those who wish to upgrade on a onsie-twosie basis, or for organizations that might conceivably wish to start working on their own infrastructure changes to build and distribute Windows 8.1 images (not likely to be a common occurrence, though some early adopters are likely to start digging into the newest desktop version, perhaps including some laggards who are being forced to give up on XP with the end of all support scheduled for next year).
3. That we’ll have a pretty darn good idea of what the final release of Windows 8.1 is going to look like: MS will release updates to the RTM version when the GA (General Availability) release goes public in October, but it’s unlikely to see any major changes after the RTM release gets into the OEMs’ hands.
Though Windows 8.1 offers some very nice features and functions — and in some cases, ones that are absolutely vital (as with a reworked Start menu, and improved desktop access) to any hopes the OS might have for success and commercial uptake — so far, it’s been hard to find any truly compelling reasons to make the move to the latest and presumptively greatest entry in the ongoing series of Microsoft desktop operating systems. But here’s something to ponder along those lines, as discussion in the July 26, 2013 posting to the Windows App Builder Blog. Entitled “Building apps that connect with devices,” this post lays out the mechanics of bringing apps and devices together in very interesting ways to take advantage of touch on the PC side and all kinds of focused capability on the device said. Here’s a block diagram of what this new approach looks like:
As it turns out, it’s the layers in the middle that make this incredibly interesting — and potentially quite valuable, for device makers and vendors — because they depend on what MS calls either device scenario or device protocol APIs. Here’s how the blog post explains these things: they “…allow a Windows Store app to talk to a device over industry standard protocols like USB, HID, Bluetooth (and Bluetooth Smart), as well as Wi-Fi Direct As a developer, all you need to do is simply identify the device (leveraging metadata) and then open a communication channel to the device. Opening a channel prompts for user consent.” And if such consent is granted (it’s required to prevent apps from accidentally or maliciously communicating with devices behind the scenes, without users being informed or aware of such activity), apps can communicate with devices — even those involving large data transfers, which can proceed even after a user changes focus to another app — as and when they need to.
This finally explains what MS was getting at when they disclosed that Windows 8.1 includes built-in facilities for driving 3-D printers (which have previously required dedicated device drivers for earlier versions of Windows). It also explains how MS can claim that “home developers can create their own apps to communicate with non-standard devices. The post concludes with pointers to a series of videos that dig into these subjects in more detail:
- Building an app that connects to devices [2-023]
- Using Geolocation and Geofencing in Windows Store pps [3-9034]
- 3D Printing with Windows [3-9027]
- Building Windows Apps That Use Scanners [3-025]
- How to Use Point-of-Sale Devices in Your App [3-029]
- Apps for Bluetooth, HID, and USB Devices (focusing on Bluetooth RFCOMM) [3-026]
- Apps for Bluetooth Smart Devices [3-9028]
- Apps for USB Devices [3-924a]
- Apps for HID Devices [2-924b]
Interested readers will want to check out one or more of these items, depending on where their hardware and interface interests lie. Great stuff though, all around!
I am a big fan of Ed Bott’s ZDNet blog posts, which often deal with Windows topics, under the general heading of The Ed Bott Report. Earlier this week (July 23) he posted a little gem entitled “The Metro hater’s guide to the Windows 8.1 Preview,” wherein he steps readers through a series of six UI tweaking steps needed to make the Windows 8.1 Preview get as far away as possible from the Modern UI Start menu and all of its appurtenances. I’ll spare you the details (please read the original for nice step-by-step instructions), and simply summarize those steps by name here:
1. Uninstall unwanted apps (he’s referring to non-desktop tile-based apps).
2. Adjust the look of the Start screen.
3. Tweak the Start screen settings to suit your preferences.
4. Arrange the Apps screen.
5. Pin your favorite desktop programs to the taskbar.
6. Set your default apps (to avoid invoking non-desktop tile-based apps, which Win8.1 — like its predecessor — still does by default).
Good stuff, and eminently helpful for those who want to stick to the built-in Windows 8.1 capabilities. But alas, taking this approach still means that some access to the Windows 8.1 Start screen is both inevitable and necessary.
Let’s consider some alternatives, shall we? As I indicated in my previous blog post (“Now I Know Where There’s a Start8 1.17 Beta: For Win8.1“) I’m still sold on the notion of using a so-called Start Menu replacement program instead, even with Win8.1. The Start8 1.17 beta (still my personal favorite, recent comments from blog readers about other alternatives — much appreciated, BTW — notwithstanding) is one good choice for this role, and the SourceForge project Classic Shell is another. And in that connection, I just learned this morning that there’s a new Classic Shell 3.9.0 beta available, which has been further tweaked to make itself more at home in the Windows 8.1 environment; see this Softpedia article for more info and a download link). If you want to see a reasonably complete list of ALL the Windows 8 Start menu replacements out there — 19 in total — check Wikipedia’s “List of Start Menu Replacements for Windows 8.” There is certainly no shortage of options, which tells me there’s a strong need for them, too! Things are indeed better with Windows 8.1 than its predecessor, but this need has by no means disappeared — at least not IMO.
Anybody who’s been reading this blog for the last year knows that I’m a big fan of the $5 Stardock software utility known as Start8. While it’s not free (and for those who want to spend absolutely nothing on a Win8 start menu replacement, I recommend Classic Shell instead), it’s not exactly expensive, either, and I find it to be the best option out of the nearly two dozen start menu replacements I’ve been able to find out there on the Internet. Thus, as I’ve started digging into the Windows 8.1 Preview and exploring lots of features and functions — thanks in large part to a Sybex book I’m tech-editing on the MCSA: Windows 8 exams (70-687 and 70-688) — I found myself struggling to get the production version of Start 8 working on the new 8.1 version. That’s when I remembered seeing a forum post about a new beta version on the Stardock forums:
After a couple of unsuccessful tries to get the production version working on Win8.1 Preview, I remembered there was a new beta version available…
And indeed, my suspicions and hopes were confirmed once I perused said post, entitled “Start 8 1.17 Beta Available for Download” (if you’d rather, you can just go straight for the download link instead). Download in hand, I ran the installer (which also removed the previous production 1.16 version before installing the new beta) and once again found myself in possession of a workable start menu replacement for Windows 8.1. If you try the 8.1 Preview, you may want to do likewise as well. And while 8.1 stays in Preview, the beta is free — though you should expect to have to “license up” as soon as a commercial version of Windows 8.1 becomes available.
It doesn’t say “Beta” anywhere, but the version number is indisputably 1.17.
Late last week, Microsoft pushed out a batch of new fixes for the Windows 8.1 Preview for x86, x64, and RT versions. This comes about a week after Patch Tuesday, and includes five fixes — one labeled “Important,” with four others “Recommended” — that are separate and distinct from the Patch Tuesday fixes that appeared on July 9. This signals an apparent departure from Microsoft’s prior practice of holding most patches and fixes until the second Tuesday of the month (aka “Patch Tuesday”). According to Ed Bott’s recent story for ZDnet, Microsoft calls this a “rapid update cadence.”
More frequent updates mean more time spent evaluating updates, and probably also more time in the test lab, checking for adverse or unwanted side effects.
That story also provides some interesting information about the specific updates pushed, which include an app compatibility roll-up, plus a welcome fix that addresses jerky scrolling behavior in the Windows 8.1 Preview (see story for details). But what I find interesting about this approach is that it apparently signals a move from a “periodic update” regime to a “as needed” update regime. This is all well and good for individual and small business operations where updates will be applied automatically in most such situations. But this may mean more work for larger organizations and enterprises, where updates must be tested and vetted, and only those that don’t cause problems integrated into periodic pushes dictated by internal schedules — typically, on a once-a-month or a once-per-quarter planned refresh/update basis, over a three-day weekend or holiday if possible, so as to minimize potential productivity impacts.
What does this signify for enterprise admins, especially those who manage change control for updates, patches, and fixes? Let me speculate that it will mean more frequent attention to incoming patches and fixes, and perhaps also more frequent scheduling for test lab work to assess the need for and impact of pending patches and updates. I doubt that it can affect internal refresh/update cycles themselves, but it will have at least some impact on the activities that lead up to approval of pending changes for each “next cycle” and will probably require more time and effort in the test lab to keep playing catch-up.