Attention, world: Microsoft has heard your complaints about Windows 8. And the company will address many—but not all—of those complaints in a free update to the OS code-named “Blue” and branded as Windows 8.1. Will Blue silence the critics and right the Windows ship?
Well, it won’t silence the critics, that’s for sure. This is the paradox for Microsoft, which claims 1.4 billion active Windows users. Apparently every single one of them is a critic.
Case in point: With Windows 8, Microsoft ditched the Start button and Start menu that debuted back in 1995, replacing the latter with a touch-centric and dynamic Start screen that is almost unusable on the traditional PCs that virtually everyone actually uses. Complaints reached a fever pitch, so this week’s revelations include a confirmation that Microsoft will return the Start button to Windows 8 in the 8.1 update. But it is not bringing back the Start menu—paving the way for a new round of complaints. Classic Microsoft.
But let’s not bury the company quite yet. Looked at objectively, the changes Microsoft is making in Windows 8.1 do indeed achieve the firm’s two stated goals for this release: It does address chief complaints, and it does advance Windows 8 in very important ways. As important, it’s doing so in record time, at least for Microsoft. Windows 8.1 will ship within a year of the original Windows 8 release. Most Windows releases take three years to ship.
Yes, they’re fudging a bit: Windows 8.1 isn’t as far-reaching an update as, say, a Windows 9 release might be. But this is the New Normal (tm), where even traditionally delivered Microsoft software is updated like a service, over time and evolutionarily, rather than in monolithic dumps on an extended schedule.
Windows 8.1 leaks have been making the rounds online for many months. As you might expect, I’ve been one of the chief spelunkers of information about the coming update, publishing articles about Windows 8.1 regularly on the SuperSite for Windows. What’s changed is that this week, for the first time, Microsoft has provided us with the first official rundown of some of the changes coming in Windows 8.1 You can read all about it in "Microsoft Provides a 'First Look' at Windows 8.1." But here are a few high-level thoughts that I think are important about this change.
First, although you can correctly blame the Windows team for ignoring user feedback for the six years under the Sinofsky regime, Microsoft (finally) is listening. And though it might never arrive at the release so many people seem to want (Windows 7, if I’m understanding the complaints correctly), it is willing to at least meet the critics halfway and bring back the interfaces it can without sacrificing its focus on the future, which is very much touch- and mobility-based.
Second, there are some serious and important changes coming in Windows 8.1 that dramatically mature the half-baked “Metro” user experience that debuted in Windows 8. Far more of the desktop-based Control Panel settings are now in the Metro-based PC Settings experience. There are substantive improvements to how you can display Metro screens (including the Start screen) on multiple displays and, as important, side-by-side on a single screen. The built-in apps, a notable weak spot in the initial release, are all getting pretty major updates. And the horrible Windows Store is getting a much-needed overhaul.
Again, Microsoft will never actually silence its critics, but then with 1.4 billion users—each with its own particular needs—it’s not possible for any Windows release to please everyone. Windows 8.1 does go a long way toward addressing the most glaring deficiencies in Windows 8. The question is whether enough customers will forgive Microsoft for the sins of the past and just move on. Something tells me there’s still work to be done on that count.