With This Windows 8.1 Update, Microsoft Admitted to a Massive Mistake

When Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ: MSFT  ) unveiled its latest Windows 8.1 update Wednesday, the tech giant boasted of "important refinements to the Windows experience." Specifically, it says, the update's primarily aim is to "give people a more familiar and convenient experience across touch, keyboard and mouse inputs."

I'll happily agree the update is "important" -- but let's call it what it is: An admission of quite possibly the most significant mistake Microsoft has ever made with its core Windows products.

If you're one of the millions of frustrated PC users who've fumbled through Windows 8 since its Oct. 2012 release, you know exactly what I'm talking about: That awful tile-based Metro Start Screen, a maddening inability to close or resize full screen Metro Apps, and a general uneasy feeling you're working on a tablet trapped in a PC's body.

Believe it or not, part of Microsoft's introduction to this week's update shows that was an intentional move: 

To be clear, I touched on this topic a few months ago. At the time, though, the contents of the update were speculative, and involved both bringing back a full-fledged Start Menu and the optional ability to run Metro apps in floating Windows on the desktop.

Now that Microsoft has made it official, however, we know that's not exactly the case. So what are these "new features" to make life easier for all you keyboard and mouse folks?

Longing for the old days
First, select devices will now boot directly to the desktop by default, instead of automatically displaying the Metro Start Screen. 

Second, Microsoft admitted to one of the biggest beefs consumers have held with Windows since it drastically changed interface, saying:

Most users without a touch screen rely heavily on the task bar to switch between the apps they're running and to launch new apps. The problem for these users is that there's been no way to launch or close new Windows Store apps [...] directly from the task bar.

As a result, the "new" task bar in Windows 8.1 gives users the ability to pin Metro apps to it, and will also display every program currently open in the system including those apps.

Microsoft stock

Hooray for convenient buttons! Credit: Microsoft

What's more, Microsoft also graciously added "Close" and "Minimize" buttons to the top-right corner of all Metro apps. When one is open, users can also easily find the taskbar by moving their mouse to the bottom of the screen.

Finally, rather than requiring you hover on the right side of your monitor to access Search, Power, and the Settings dialog, the Start Screen will now feature directly accessible buttons for each.

Long story short: After the update, anyone who doesn't rely on a touchscreen should have a much easier time navigating Windows 8.1.

Once again, however, all of these changes aren't really "new," but rather steps back to Microsoft's old way of doing things. Don't get me wrong. As a mildly-annoyed Windows 8.1 PC user myself, I can't wait to download the update and bring back these welcome touches of familiarity when it's rolled out to the masses next week.

If one thing is sure, it's that Microsoft is well aware it overstepped its reach in completely overhauling the operating system which made it famous in the first place.

Why PC users are still getting attention
As long as Microsoft continues to struggle taking market share in mobile -- something it hopes will change, by the way, given its recent decision to make Windows 8 free for small phones and tablets -- we can be sure the PC realm will remain a huge part of Microsoft's business. To be sure, with its most recent quarterly report in January, Microsoft stated softness in the consumer PC market led to a 3% year-over-year decline in Windows OEM revenue to roughly $3.5 billion.

But it's hard to quantify whether Microsoft's mistake had any far-reaching negative effects on its business, especially since the overall PC market likely would have faltered in the face of a tsunami of mobile devices, anyway. And isn't this the very reason Microsoft finds itself in this predicament today? After all, the aim of the Metro interface was to bring some semblance of continuity to users across Microsoft's various desktop, mobile, and gaming platforms.

In any case, time will tell whether Microsoft's strategy will pay off over the long-term. In the meantime, I suppose I'll just enjoy my new buttons.

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Read/Post Comments (17) | Recommend This Article (14)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On April 05, 2014, at 9:11 PM, locsphere wrote:

    I was saying way before windows 8 came out that everyone is going to far with the tablets. Tablets are cheap knock offs of the power houses and lack basic abilities. I always had to go back to my PC to get anything significant done. Unless the tablet can do EVERYTHING a pc can. Then PC's will be around for a long time. A VERY LONG time.

    The tablet is disposable, there is a new one out every year or so. But a PC thanks to the tablet has retained a lot of its functionality. I love my PC and hate my tablet for the very reasons microsoft bet on would be people catching on.

    People want to be able to do everything they can on a tablet that they can do on a PC. That means hooking up keyboards and mouses. USB, etc. I also can't game on a tablet without going back to 1998 2d games. Its not fun! I like the tablet for on the go stuff. Word is great, email is great, but they will never replace the power house the PC is. We're basically being sold old tech shrunken tech with a new purpose. AND SPARE ME on the architecture argument.

  • Report this Comment On April 05, 2014, at 9:53 PM, hawkhell wrote:

    My biggest question is why do people on desktops and non touch laptops use Metro Apps? Metro apps were designed to be used on touchscreens and a lot of them are useless without a touchscreen or just a copy of a traditional program so it can be used on tablets easier.

    locsphere I do not think anyone considers tablets as a replacement of a high end PC. Tablets replace PCs in media consumption, web browsing, social media, and simple games.

  • Report this Comment On April 05, 2014, at 10:41 PM, jah1subs wrote:

    I am unimpressed with all of Motley Fool's criticisms of Microsoft. Are you short Microsoft and long Apple and Google?

    Just wondering

  • Report this Comment On April 06, 2014, at 12:26 AM, TMFSymington wrote:

    @jah1subs: see the disclaimer at the bottom of the article (I don't own shares of Microsoft, but The Fool actually does). To be fair, I think the update is great news, though that doesn't change the fact Microsoft knows it went too far with the changes in the initial builds of Windows 8.

    @freejazz38: FWIW, I paid my bills in college --where I earned a B.S. in Computer Science -- through a combination of web programming, network management, and computer hardware/software repair. So there's that.

    But even then, keep in mind many people either don't know about (or, for good reason, prefer to avoid) third party band-aid applications meant to modify the Windows GUI. That Microsoft recognized the shortcomings of the changes and even partially reverted back speaks volumes.

    Thanks for reading and Fool on,

    Steve (TMFSymington)

  • Report this Comment On April 06, 2014, at 4:27 AM, Cdavidc wrote:

    Yup, they made a huge mistake with win8. I bought a PC in August, kept it for a month, then GAVE it away and bought an Apple. Apple doesn't completely change their user interface every 2 years, because it is a great product and we'll made machines. I'll never buy a windows machine again.

  • Report this Comment On April 06, 2014, at 1:21 PM, kellenbmiller wrote:

    What about the Games that we keep looking for that we have playing since they were given to us? Forcing people to go the store was not fair. Plus the games that were on Windows 7 are not in the store. It is the only reason I have not reinstalled Windows 8. Oh, and that it forces a different browser by default with IE. Microsoft's Windows 7 is fine, it is a great OS. Touch is overrated, plus you can buy a touch pad that recognizes touch gestures for PC desktops. If you need that.

  • Report this Comment On April 06, 2014, at 9:47 PM, mtmom wrote:

    I got a netbook at Christmas with 8.0 loaded. Hated it. gave it to my son who loves it (he's crazy but what can I say). Went back to using my other netbook that was running 7.0 starter. loved it. then the darn thing died on me. looked at tablets--even one my other son has who loves his. but none of them do what i need to do...word processing, spreadsheets, powerpoint, etc. looked at chromebooks. come on! i am not a free advertiser--even t-shirts that say go to bubba gumps. got a laptop running 8.1. don't love it but i can deal with it. it's much better than 8.0. still haven't figured how to shut down a window or go from one window to another without losing myself (and I'm not great with directions anyway). so perhaps 8.2 will be an improvement on 8.1.

  • Report this Comment On April 06, 2014, at 10:53 PM, laethyn wrote:

    @Cdavidc

    "Apple doesn't completely change their user interface every 2 years"

    Neither does Microsoft. I'm not sure what your point is.

    There have been minor tweaks to the Windows UI over the years, but for the most part, my Win7 machine looks exactly that same as my XP box looked, as well as my win2k, and even my win98se install.

  • Report this Comment On April 07, 2014, at 5:35 AM, moopert wrote:

    Stop trying to make a one size fits all OS for both PC and mobile. Run an OS for PCs and a separate OS for your mobile products(which BTW are failing to gain significant traction). PCs will be around for a long time. Gamers need a PC and businesses need a PC. If you abandon these markets, they will perform a mass exodus to Apple/Linux. Please do not make me as a PC gamer move over to the much more expensive/less desirable to me Apple OS. I want to believe in Windows, but if Windows 9 isn't a vast change of course from the train wreck that is Windows 8, I will be forced to move to an Apple computer.

  • Report this Comment On April 07, 2014, at 6:53 AM, tonymsm wrote:

    laethyn: My biggest gripe with Microsoft is not with the Windows interface - up to 7 I agree it's pretty much standard - but with Office.

    I keep a laptop running 98SE because Word 97 can save clean, simple, understandable HTML and I can't abide the inscrutable, inefficient (more hunting and clicks per task), space-hogging Ribbon which was foisted on us in 2k7. At work I had IT remove it and give me 2k3.

    As for the Start button, it's always been stupid to have to press "Start" to shut down. MS should have licensed "Next" from Steve Jobs - it would have made much more sense.

  • Report this Comment On April 07, 2014, at 8:54 AM, almostime21 wrote:

    Come on everyone this is at least the 10th time the FOOL has written an article about how "bad" Microsoft is.

    We also know that if Apple had come out with the Metro interface of W8.0 the FOOL would be all over it claiming it’s the best interface ever created.

  • Report this Comment On April 07, 2014, at 9:45 AM, JJ82 wrote:

    This changes nothing. Windows 8.1 is still an Operating System designed for mobile devices and not a PC OS.

    MS should have made two versions of Windows, a real OS, and an OS lite for mobile devices.

    Who needs to run mobile apps on a PC?

    Who can use a full on PC program on a mobile device?

    Just because they have CPUs, doesn't make them the same market. They are used for different reasons and their users have different needs.

    MS has once again failed to understand the mobile market and in trying to figure it out, lost sight of what the PC market actually is.

  • Report this Comment On April 07, 2014, at 9:59 AM, tredadda wrote:

    It seems to me that Microsoft as of late fluctuates from great OS to bad or awful OS. They gave us XP and people loved it, then they upgraded to Vista which was despised. Then they came up with Windows 7 which was loved only to replace it with Windows 8 which is hated. If they continue this trend I expect the next OS from them to be amazing again.

  • Report this Comment On April 07, 2014, at 10:04 AM, GuitarJim wrote:

    Breaking News: Microsoft Re-Invents The Bicycle!

    In a stunning news release, Microsoft has announced that they have completely reinvented the bicycle. One of the most significant changes is that they've replaced the handle bars and foot pedals with steering wheels. This, they say, is to "provide a more consistent user experience across all of their vehicular devices". However, users who were not born with four hands (our research indicates that, aside from some monkeys who work at Microsoft, this group includes all users) are having a difficult time learning to operate the "forward motion app" (the steering wheels which are mounted where the foot pedals used to be) with their feet. Microsoft insists that users will get used to the changes, especially as they migrate to new bicycles specifically designed for the new user interface devices. In order to ensure that this happens Microsoft has also announced an accelerated schedule for retiring their previous products, followed by dire warnings of a Biblical apocalypse if people don't upgrade to Bicycle 8.1 before tomorrow.

    In the meantime, most people have stopped wondering why Steve Balmer resigned to an undisclosed location whose coordinates are apparently blotted out on Google Maps.

  • Report this Comment On April 07, 2014, at 10:40 AM, smilingdon wrote:

    I agree with JJ82 and said in the past that MS should have supported two operating systems but greed got the best of them. Any serious power user is going to have problems with Windows 8, period. They have had years of experience multitasking which "seemed" to have not been a real consideration by MS.

  • Report this Comment On April 09, 2014, at 6:38 PM, tjwrunhiker wrote:

    I've been baited and switched. I read the story suggested in the last paragraph of Steve's article above. It is a hype for Rule Breakers. During they story they dangle a blockbuster stock behind a curtain. At the end they give you a green button labeled "Tell me the stock". The button carries you to a screen on which you must purchase Rule Breaker. No stock name. I invested 20 to 30 minutes I think. Credibility erosion! This is the last time they'll get me on that one. Incidentally, I believe he stock is InvenSense. TW.

  • Report this Comment On May 26, 2014, at 2:34 PM, BenFE08 wrote:

    Windows 8 and 8.1 is CRAP. I use my laptop and desktops to WORK. If I wanted to play games, etc, I'd by a tablet. But I WORK for a living, not play and this is total CRAP.

    I don't need mobile apps on my computer. I need my applications and start menus BACK where they belong so I can do my WORK.

    Whose lameass idea was this?

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