The Windows Desktop Cycle

Microsoft has been bringing out desktop operating environments for decades now and those of us who have been in the industry long enough are aware of a pattern that they use, perhaps unofficially, in bringing new technologies to market that those who have not had enough exposure to their releases over the years may have missed.  The release cycle for new Windows products is a very slow one with many years between each release which makes it very difficult to see the pattern emerge if you have not been directly exposed to it for decades.  Researching the products in retrospect, especially with the public’s reaction to them in juxtaposition, is very difficult.

What is important is that Windows comes out in a flip-flop fashion with every other release being a “long term support, heavily stable” release and the alternate releases being the “new technology preview” releases.  This is not to say that any particular release is good or bad, but that one release is based around introducing a new system to the public and the next is a more polished release with fewer changes than its predecessor focused on long term adoption.

The goal of this release pattern should be obvious.  Whenever major changes from to such a widely used platform the average user, even the average IT professional, tends to resist the change and be unhappy with it.  But after a while the new look, feel and features start to feel natural.  Then a slightly updated, slightly more polished version of the same features can be released and the general public feels like Microsoft has “learned its lesson” and they appreciate the same features that they disliked a few years before.  This approach works wonders in Microsoft’s mixed consumer and business world where they get home users to adopt the latest and greatest at home with OEM licenses bundled with the computers that they buy and businesses can, and usually do, wait for the “every other” cycle to allow them to utilize only the more mature of the two releases to their users who have already lived through the pain of the changes at home.

Outside of the Windows world you can witness the same sort of adoption with the much maligned MS Office 2007 and MS Office 2010.  The former was universally hated because of the then new Ribbon interface.  The later was much loved mostly because people had already adapted to the Ribbon interface and now appreciated it but also because Microsoft had time to learn from the 2007 release and tweak the Ribbon to be improved by 2010.

This pattern started long ago and can be seen happening, to some degree, even in the DOS-based Windows era (the Windows family starting from the very beginning and running up through Windows ME.)  Of the more recent family members Windows 3 was the preview, Windows 3.1 was the long term release, Windows 95 was the preview, Windows 98 the long term release and Windows ME was the preview.  Each one of the previews had poor reception, comparatively, due to the introduction of new ideas and interfaces.  Each of the long term releases outlived its counterpart preview release on the market and were widely loved.  It is a successful pattern.

In the modern era of Windows NT, starting with Windows NT 3.1 in 1993, the overarching pattern continued with NT 3.1 itself being the “preview” member of the new Windows NT family.  Just one year later Windows NT 3.5 released and was popular for its time.  Windows NT 3.51 came out and provided the first support for the new world of interoperability with Windows 95 from the DOS family which released just a few months after NT 3.51 itself did.  Then the stable, long term Windows NT 4 released in 1996 and dominated the Windows world for the next half decade.  Windows NT 4 leveraged both the cycle from the Windows NT family as well as the cycle from the DOS/Windows family to great effect.

In 2000 when Windows 2000 released it was a dramatic shift for the Windows NT family and was poorly received.  The changes, both to the desktop and the coinciding Server product with the introduction of Active Directory were massive and disruptive.  Windows 2000 was the quintessential preview release.  It took just one year before Windows XP replaced it on the desktop.  Windows XP, per its place in the cycle, turned out to be the quintessential long term release making even Windows NT 4 look short lived.  Windows XP expanded very little on Windows 2000 Workstation but it brought additional polish and no significant changes making it exactly what businesses and most home users, were looking for as their main operating system for a very long time.

When Microsoft was ready to disrupt the desktop again with new changes, like the additional security of UAC, they did so in Windows Vista.  Vista, like Windows 2000, was not well received and was possibly the most hated Windows release of all time.  But Vista did its job perfectly.  Shortly after the release of Windows Vista came the nominally different Windows 7 with some minor UAC changes and some improved polish and was very well received.  Vista paved the way so that Windows 7 could be loved and used for many years.

Now we stand on the verge of the Windows 8 release.  Like Vista, 2000, Office 2007 and Windows 95, Windows 8 represents a dramatic departure for the platform and already, before even being released, has generated massive amounts of bad press and animosity.  If we study the history of the platform, though, we would have expected this in the Windows 8 release regardless of what changes were going to be announced.  Windows 8 is the “preview” release.  We know that a new operating system, perhaps called Windows 9, is at most two years away and will bring a slightly tweaked, more polished version of Windows 8 that end users will love and the issues with Windows 8, like its predecessors, will soon be forgotten.  The cycle is well established and very successful.  There is very little chance that it will be changing anytime soon.

7 thoughts on “The Windows Desktop Cycle”

  1. Very good insight and explanation into the life cycle of Microsoft OS. What gave you the idea into writing this article?

  2. Thanks. Well it has been something that I’ve been talking about for years. Back when XP first came out I used to explain this cycle to show why Windows 2000 had been so lackluster but that that wasn’t a bad thing.

    Most people switched to Windows NT at XP and so didn’t see the cycle firsthand until Vista came out and it was far too little data to pick out the pattern. Now that Windows 8 is coming out and everyone already knows how much they dislike it, it was a perfect time to write about how Windows 8’s job is not to be loved, but to introduce new concepts to get everyone ready for the follow up product coming, likely, just a year or two away.

  3. I don’t know though, other than the introduction of an App store for 8 and the metro interface my experience thus far has felt like i am using Windows 7 with the Metro interface as my primary interface. I might also add that while I don’t mind the Metro interface, I don’t feel it is as fluent to use as the previous desktop model on a non touch screen interface.

    I don’t mean to start an argument but essentially it feels more like a stable release in this cycle than anything else. Although I suppose since you mention Windows 2000 in the NT family this could be very much like Windows 2000. That OS was very stable itself, but certainly was a departure from the NT 4 people knew. Regardless I am a firm believer that MS is taking a huge gamble on standardizing this interface on all devices.

  4. A great read. It seems obvious now that you’ve stated it, but I never did spot this pattern.
    From what I’ve seen, Windows 7 is well liked and popular on home PCs. Many companies like it but are still on XP. With the XP support ending in 2014, their upgrade will probably take place in 2013 – meaning such companies will probably have to take Windows 8. Then sob when the polished version comes out!

  5. Servers do not have the same cycle for various reasons. The big difference is that on the desktop there is experimentation with new interface features – this is purely a desktop thing. Windows 8 is groundbreaking because of its interface, not because of its code. So Server 2012, which matches Windows 8, doesn’t put users through the same changes.

    Servers are a very different type of product. If server admins were faced with too much change or what felt like a broken system, they would jump ship. Server admins can’t risk “waiting out” the next version.

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