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Microsoft move hints at the death of Windows service packs

Gregg Keizer | Oct. 12, 2012
Microsoft's first-time move Tuesday to update Windows 8 before the OS launches is a sign of the company's continued edging toward practices long held by rivals Apple and Google.

General Availability, or GA, is Microsoft-speak for the official launch and on-sale date.

Analysts and experts searched for reasons why Microsoft broke with tradition to push what wags have already pegged as "Service Pack 0.1."

"What's the mindset that they really want to break?" Cherry asked. "They want consumers and enterprises to believe that they don't have to wait for a service pack [to install Windows 8]. This is more of a statement of direction than anything. Microsoft's saying, 'We can get stuff to you on the fly, so as we discover, validate, fix and test, we now have a mechanism to release them.'"

A long-held rule-of-thumb, especially among IT administrators, was that it was smart to wait until bugs had been rooted out -- and a first service pack released -- before deploying a new edition of Windows. But that rule has been relaxed in the last few years, as Microsoft has encouraged users to begin upgrades before SP1. In 2007, for example, Microsoft argued that service packs were no longer necessary, then hemmed and hawed for months before finally announcing SP1 for Vista.

More recently, Microsoft touted regular updates as a reason why customers should acquire the upcoming Office 2013 by subscribing to one of its Office 365 plans.

"This 'slipstreaming' of updates is really not any different than what Apple has been doing for a long time," said Cherry. "They release iOS but then updates come pretty quickly."

Miller echoed that. "Look at Google, they're constantly introducing new features in Chrome OS," Miller said. "Browsers on Windows are the same. Google and Mozilla are constantly updating [Chrome and Firefox]. So Microsoft is just getting into what other vendors are doing, adding minor functionality. It may get people a little more excited about Windows 8."

Cherry had another explanation, one derived from a previous groundbreaking move by Microsoft.

"I see them driven by the Surface PCs, which are sealed units," said Cherry of Microsoft-made hardware. The first Surface, a tablet powered by Windows RT, was unveiled in June and will go on sale in two weeks. "They're totally reliant on over-the-network updates. Some won't have DVD drives -- optical drives are likely to go away -- and as these sealed devices get more popular, on-the-fly updating is the way to go."

Apple has already ditched optical drives from its notebook lines, and those machines as well as the iPad, are usually updated over-the-air via wireless networks. The Cupertino, Calif. company has never collected updates into service pack-style bundles, but has instead issued multiple updates to OS X over the course of each year.

Sinofsky did not explicitly declare service packs dead, but he seemed to hint it was on the cusp of obsolescence, and that Microsoft plans to deliver not only fixes and patches, but also new and improved features, via Windows Update.

 

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