Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT ) launched Windows 8 last October with radical ambitions in mind. The Start menu was gone, and in its place was a tile-based interface that was a dramatic departure from what Windows users had grown accustomed to over the past 17 years, dating to the introduction of Windows 95.
Anytime you overhaul the user interface of something as long-lived and pervasive as Windows, there will be loud user complaints. Some level of users will always be resistant to change.
However, the steep learning curve on Windows 8 has made it a difficult transition, especially for larger companies whose users are accustomed to older versions of Windows. With the company looking to release a major update named Windows 8.1 that should be released later this year, let's take a look back at Windows 8 to date and what should be expected from Microsoft's major overhaul of the operating system.
Why go tile?
Microsoft's reasoning for the dramatic changes to Windows was simple: Past versions of Windows didn't translate well to the touch-based devices such as tablets that are exploding in popularity. By creating a tile-based interface, the company could make Windows relevant for both PCs and tablets, rather than create a separate version for tablets.
To date, results have been middling. At the start of May, Microsoft announced that it had sold more than 100 million Windows 8 licenses, but little traction has been gained in tablets. More painfully, the slide in consumer interest around PCs continues. In the first quarter, PC shipments declined more than 11% according to industry tracker Gartner.
Microsoft admits mistakes, but sticks to its guns
While Microsoft isn't ready to throw in the towel on its vision for the future of Windows, it is admitting to some bumpiness in Windows 8's launch. On a blog post from earlier this month, Tami Reller, who serves as both CFO and CMO for the Windows division, acknowledged that Windows 8 is a "big, ambitious change." She further noted that "change takes time."
Further admission that Windows 8 might have pushed users too far out of their boundaries comes from its upcoming Windows 8.1 update, due out later this year. Up until recent weeks, Microsoft had dribbled out hints on the update but now appears ready to talk. Most of the talk centers on the return of a familiar Microsoft icon: the Start button.
Bring back the Start button! Kind of.
As CNET notes, Microsoft's Windows 8.1 update will come with a "Start Tip," which sits in the lower left corner and allows users to return to a Start screen. This won't return you to the Start menu you're familiar with, but the Start screen will be customizable in a way that allows users to create a listing of applications that's similar to the Start menus of past Windows versions.
For the most ardent critics of change in Windows 8, the 8.1 update is delivering something long-clamored for: an option to boot directly to the desktop. The fact that current versions of Windows 8 forced users to boot up in the tile-based interface has been the subject of much of the Windows 8 controversy.
More Microsoft products
Beyond the design compromises that allow users to go back to a more "traditional" experience, the other big change in Windows 8.1 appears to be more integration with Microsoft products. We've come a long way since Microsoft was almost split up for bundling Internet Explorer in Windows. The changes come not only in Microsoft's dominance of computing, but also in the acceptance of bundling software with an operating system.
Back in the late '90s Microsoft controlled upward of 90% of computing devices, which at the time were largely just PCs. However, across the past five years, the explosion of smartphones and tablets means Microsoft controls less than 25% of "connected devices" today, thanks to Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL ) and Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG ) dominance of that mobile growth.
Also, in the highly competitive mobile world, bundling services is no longer perceived as the anti-competitive threat it once was, but more something that enhances the user experience. Today, on iOS and Android, most default services such as Maps and media services such as iTunes or Google Play come bundled with the operating system. Microsoft is using this changing landscape to integrate more of its existing services into Windows.
On Windows 8.1, Microsoft is more closely bundling SkyDrive as a Web storage service. Also, a new version of Internet Explorer will come as a default with Windows 8.1. Whether or not PC users like it, Microsoft is responding to the changing landscape around it. When Microsoft shelled out $8.5 billion for Skype, it was evidence of how serious the company was about building up services it could bundle across all its products: Windows, mobile, Xbox. The future of Windows isn't just Microsoft's owning the operating system, but also the key software and services on top it.
Happy Windows users?
Will Windows 8.1's changes be enough to satisfy most dissatisfied users? Probably not. The tile user interface remains at the center of the experience, even if booting to the desktop is now an option. Moreover, many of the changes to make Windows 8.1 feel more similar to Windows versions rely on customization. With many users complaining about a "steep learning curve," making users customize the experience doesn't exactly scream of simplification. However, the changes could go a way in getting more adoption of Windows 8 in a key market: corporate users. While consumer interest in PCs has been cratering, corporate PC buying has been a far more steady force. Enabling options like booting to the desktop could lessen headaches for IT departments and persuade them to begin using Windows 8.
Like it or not, Microsoft is committed to an operating system that's touch-friendly and features heavy integration with its other services. How much more will Microsoft compromise and return to the look of the Windows feel of old? That will depend on whether the company can stomach declining Windows sales across the next year, or whether Windows manages to rebound.
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