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.
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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