Microsoft: Windows 8.1 to Usher in New Hardware

With the finalized code in hand, PC makers are gearing up to deliver new, more versatile Windows devices, including small tablets.

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Surface RT

It's official. Microsoft has finally announced that development on Windows 8.1 has reached a critical stage: release to manufacturing (RTM).

Leaks related to an internal RTM build of the OS update first surfaced last week but were eclipsed by Steve Ballmer, who in a surprise announcement Friday, Aug. 23, revealed that he was retiring from Microsoft after 13 years as the company's CEO.

On Aug. 27, the Windows team took a shot at reclaiming the spotlight. "We've hit an important milestone for Windows and for Microsoft—just 10 months after delivering on a bold, generational change in computing with Windows 8, our team is proud to share that we have started releasing Windows 8.1 and Windows RT 8.1 to our hardware partners," wrote Antoine Leblond, corporate vice president of Windows Program Management in a Blogging Windows post.

As an example of Microsoft's new rapid software release cadence, Windows 8.1 is a "significant update" that owes its expansive feature set and quick turnaround "to customer feedback and an unparalleled level of collaboration across product teams," added Leblond. The software includes a sweeping number of enhancements and user interface tweaks that largely remedy some of Windows 8's most unpopular features.

For instance, Microsoft heard the pleas of users that missed the Start button, a fixture since Windows 95, and restored it in the free OS update (sans the traditional Start Menu). It also offers boot-to-desktop options, allowing users without touch-screens and those that prefer the traditional desktop view to bypass the touch-enabled Live Tile interface.

Leblond hinted that users aren't the only ones anticipating Windows 8.1. Hardware makers, faced with a sustained pattern of dwindling PC sales, also have reason to be optimistic. "Our hardware partners are in a position to prepare the wide array of innovative devices our customers can expect later this fall—just in time for the holidays," stated Leblond.

"Over the next several months, we’ll see beautiful, powerful devices, from the smallest tablets to the most lightweight notebooks to versatile two-in-ones, as well as industry devices designed for business," he boasted.

Microsoft is keen to get in on the small tablet craze, which is currently being fueled by best-selling devices like the iPad Mini, Kindle Fire and Google Nexus 7. Microsoft Chief Financial Officer Peter Klein said during an April 18 third-quarter earnings call that the company was "working closely with OEMs on a new suite of small touch devices powered by Windows."

"These devices will have competitive price points, partly enabled by our latest OEM offerings designed specifically for these smaller devices, and will be available in the coming months," said Klein. Microsoft, despite charging off $900 million due to lackluster Surface RT sales, is still widely rumored to be readying a Surface "Mini" tablet.

Jeff Clarke, Dell's vice chairman and president of global operations, told PCWorld that he expects the update to spur demand for Windows devices, including his company's Windows-based tablets. "It is a dramatic improvement over the first version of Windows 8," he said in an Aug. 27 report.

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez is a contributor to eWEEK and the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals. Previously, he served as a managing editor for the network of...