In-depth

Why is Microsoft accelerating Service Pack 1?

Rumours suggest that SP1 for Windows 7 is running ahead of schedule, and is likely to arrive this year.

Windows 7 Boxes

Even accounting for the usual fluff and PR gloss that's generally applied on such figures, the numbers that are coming out from Microsoft regarding the performance of Windows 7 must be music to the Redmond giant's ears.

At the beginning of the month, on the Windows 7 blog, the firm saluted the fact that it had sold 90 million copies of the operating system since its launch.

Specifically, it used the word "sold" rather than "shipped" - an old trick that is seemingly has no requirement to use this time - and no matter how you turn the numbers, it's clear that Windows 7 is doing significantly more business than Windows Vista had done by the same point.

Take a look at the market share numbers for further proof. In just over six months, Windows 7 has earned itself 8.92 per cent of the market according to numbers from Marketshare, significantly eating into the 16.51 per cent that Vista currently holds - XP still has a massive 65.49 per cent of the market.

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Furthermore, the momentum is clearly with Windows 7, and while nobody is expecting it to topple Windows XP anytime soon, it's very much on the rise, and faster than many had expected.

Nice and early

Part of the success of Windows 7 is clearly down to the fact that it was delivered to good standards and in good time. The operating system was originally due for release this year, yet Microsoft managed to bring it in early, and now it seems that it's applying the same ethos to the inevitable Service Pack 1.

Windows Service Packs are essential parts of the operating system's lifecycle. They have a habit not just of fixing lots of bugs and tweaking lots of things, but also if timed properly they can give an operating system a shot in the arm.

After all, there's no patch' anywhere else in the world of computing that will grace front covers of magazines to anywhere near the same degree, nor one that will have a positive effect on software sales.

What's puzzling, then, is why Microsoft would be looking to bring Service Pack 1 in sooner rather than later? While it's hardly a secret that the firm has been working on it in one form or another since the first half of last year - when the original reports began to emerge - SP1 still wasn't expected until next year.

Yet rumours have suggested that it is actually looking to introduce it sooner, to the point where Service Pack 1 will be with us by the end of the year.

Questions

To be clear, to call a Windows Service Pack a patch is a little churlish and not really fair. They tend to bring in substantive new features - such as USB support once upon a time - and Microsoft has a habit of using them as support cut-off points too, requiring that users have a certain service pack installed if they want to keep receiving help.

Nonetheless, rumours suggested that we were looking at a near-two year gap before SP1 appeared. And in fact, the wait following the initial release of Windows 7 is more likely just over a year.

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On the one hand, this continues to put across the fact that development on Windows 7 has been far more efficient. Who doesn't like the idea of a job being completed early and still to standard? And yet in this case, it also raises a couple of questions.

Why does Microsoft need to do this? Because there's inevitably some suspicion that it's moving the Service Pack forward to plug a hole of some form. Granted, there's an element of damned if you, damned if you don't about it. But human nature to an extent leads you to suspect something is wrong.

However, when you contrast it with Microsoft's previous Service Pack release pattern, it's not actually that out of kilter. So perhaps it's unwise to read too much into the seeming acceleration of its release. The actual explanation could be the simplest: it might just have finished working on it earlier than expected.

Doubt

The other question though is tougher to answer. If you give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt and suggest that there's nothing pressing needing fixing that would require it to accelerate Service Pack 1, then what's the point of doing it? Right now, and we'd argue for the rest of the year, Windows 7 has real momentum about it. It's had an impressive first year, and the signs are that its second is going to be above expectations too.

A Service Pack, therefore, doesn't seem to be needed in the great scheme of things.

Appreciating that it's simplifying things somewhat, the news that SP1 is around the corner may result in some people holding off the take up of the operating system until it arrives.

After all, there's an ethos among many of never adopting a major product until the first full update has been released, yet Microsoft appears to be battling that quite well.

Confidence in Windows 7 is higher than expected, and accelerating the release of a major update can't really aid that - although the counter-argument is clearly that it may ultimately encourage a second wave of buyers to commit sooner.

Perfection

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All this isn't to say Windows 7 is perfect, of course. There are criticisms that have arisen since it was first unleashed into the world, and Microsoft is likely to be addressing some of those - if you believe the rumour mill, it's looking to iron out some hefty performance issues.

It's also set to face some interesting competition before the year is out when Google releases its Chrome OS operating system, and there's an argument that it needs to get Windows 7 into tip-top shape for then.

Whatever the reason, there's still no formal word one way or the other from Microsoft. But the feeling remains that we will be getting Service Pack 1 before 2010 is over with, and if that proves to be the case, we should be discovering its contents shortly too.

That, then, may provide the answers for why we're getting it ahead of schedule after all...

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