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Windows81PreviewSta_01_PageMicrosoft says it has started sending the code for Windows 8.1 to its hardware partners to install on new PCs and tablets in time for the official public debut on Oct. 18. It’s a key step for the company as it speeds up its Windows release cycles and tries to recover from the initial criticism of Windows 8.

This milestone, know as RTM (release to manufacturing), once meant that the software was done. Not anymore.

Even after sending the code, Microsoft “will continue to work closely with (hardware partners) as we put the finishing touches on Windows 8.1 to ensure a quality experience at general availability on October 18th,” writes Windows vice president Antoine Leblond in a post this morning announcing the news.

Microsoft is expected to continue to make fixes, which will be provided as updates to the code.

Leblond writes, “In the past, the release to manufacturing (RTM) milestone traditionally meant that the software was ready for broader customer use. However, it’s clear that times have changed, with shifts to greater mobility and touch as well as the blurring of work and personal lives. As such, we’ve had to evolve the way we develop and the time in which we deliver to meet customers with the experience they need, want and expect. We’ve had to work closer to our hardware partners than ever before. Reaching this milestone is about optimizing the overall experience for our customers.”

Along with that change Microsoft is not providing early access to the RTM version of Windows 8.1 to IT pros who subscribe to its TechNet service, which is in the process of being shut down. That is stirring a backlash from one of Microsoft’s biggest constituencies. Mary Jo Foley of ZDNet has more on the Windows 8.1 changes, explaining why Microsoft is going this direction.

Windows 8.1 will be a free update for existing Windows 8 users. Microsoft hasn’t announced official pricing for new users.

Update, 11:30 a.m.: Here is Microsoft’s statement on the TechNet issue …

“Only sharing RTM code with OEMs is really about optimizing the overall experience for our customers—putting our hardware partners in a position to prepare the variety of new and innovative devices consumers and businesses can expect later this Fall just in time for holiday.  While our partners prepare their exciting new devices, we’ll stay close to them and continue to refine Windows 8.1 to ensure a quality experience at general availability for customers on October 18th.  This includes commercial customers with or without volume licensing agreements, our broad partner ecosystem, subscribers to MSDN and TechNet as well as consumers.”

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