Windows 8.1 is seen as Microsoft's attempt to regain the customer favor lost
with the release of Windows 8 and its controversial user interface, but is it
more a case of back-pedaling than moving forward?
Windows 8's tiled, touch-centric interface, once called Metro and now dubbed Modern, was seen by many as going too far and too far outside the comfort zone of many Windows users who had gotten comfortable with the Start button and the desktop paradigm of Windows 7 and earlier versions of the operating system.
The touch-friendly nature of Windows 8, released in October 2012, was intended to make the operating system work well on tablets and laptops with touchscreens as well as with traditional keyboard and mouse.
But the Windows 8 Start screen, which replaced the Start menu in Windows 7 and presented applications without visible menus and toolbars, proved difficult for many users, leading to growing calls for Microsoft to bring the Start menu back.
Last Wednesday, at its Build developer conference in San Francisco, Microsoft introduced version 8.1 -- and yes, the Start button is back.
But while the Start button is now back on the desktop, it doesn't bring up the menu familiar to users of Windows 7: Instead it takes the user to the Start screen.
There, in a blend of old and new, the user sees a list of desktop apps grouped almost like the old menus, and the Start screen no longer shows all apps in the default tiled view that put off so many when Windows 8 debuted.
Microsoft has also included the ability to boot a computer straight to the desktop in 8.1.
So with Windows 8.1, is Microsoft fine-tuning the operating system to go forward or is it an admission it got too far ahead of the curve, too far in advance of what users were ready for -- or even wanted?
Windows 8 was Microsoft's response to what it saw as the future of computing where touch screens and other input choices like voice and gestures would replace keyboards and mice.
But there's considerable inertia it has to work against. Something on the order of 1 billion computers run some version of Windows where mice and keyboards rule and are familiar and comfortable for users.
As a result, Windows 8 has not exactly taken the computing world by storm, struggling to reach a market share of less than 5 percent.
Evidence that Microsoft has done some deep re-thinking about its flagship product comes from chief executive Steve Balmer, who said Windows 8.1 is an attempt to "re-blend the desktop and modern experience" and appeal to both traditional PC and tablet users.
Its changes are in response to the clamor raised by desktop users who wanted something more familiar on their computers, he admitted.
"We pushed boldly in Windows 8," he said at the Build conference unveiling of 8.1, but "got lots of feedback" from users.
With 2 million to 3 million classic Windows applications in production and used on a daily basis, Balmer said, Microsoft was pushing for a better blend of desktop applications with modern applications in Windows 8.1.
Microsoft still obviously believes the future of computing is touch, not touch typing, but has positioned Windows 8.1 as something of an olive branch to millions of upset users.
Will it work? Only one true way to know: Watch those market share numbers.
Microsoft undoubtedly is doing just that.
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