It's pretty safe to say that Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows 8 has been a train wreck for the PC industry. In fact, Windows 8's radical departure has appeared to slow the PC market to the point where worldwide PC shipments posted their steepest quarterly decline ever in the first quarter. It also isn't helping matters that users have been very vocal about their distaste for the operating system's modernized experience from previous Windows versions.
As a result, Microsoft will be releasing Windows version 8.1 in "late 2013" in hopes to address some of Windows 8's the biggest complaints from users. The hope is that these measures will improve the user experience enough to improve the PC's prospects.
Topping the list of Windows 8 complaints has been the omission of the classic Start Button/Menu that's been part of the Windows franchise since Windows 95. Naturally, Windows 8.1 brings back the Start Button/Menu combination, but reinvents the experience to be more tailored for the age of mobile computing and touchscreens. Instead of bringing up the familiar Start Menu, you can either be directed to the Metro Start Screen or the Metro Apps view. The former option is essentially useless for non-touch users and will not please die-hard Start Menu enthusiasts, but the latter option gives keyboard and mouse users a functional list of apps that isn't awkward or inefficient to use without a touch screen. In other words, non-touch users may no longer feel as alienated from the touch-preferred Metro interface.
Other Windows 8.1 notable features include improved search functionality, the ability to boot directly to the desktop, and the integration of Microsoft SkyDrive. Of the three, the ability to boot directly to the desktop could give deep-pocketed enterprises a reason to jump on the Windows 8.1 bandwagon.
Although the reintroduction of Start Button and Menu is a welcomed addition, ExtremeTech's hands-on review acknowledges that Windows 8.1 is a touch-friendly operating system first, and the keyboard, mouse, and desktop are "second-class citizens." That's understandable, considering 65% of all PCs end up in the hands of consumers and the world has had an extremely healthy appetite for tablet computing. In fact, IDC expects worldwide tablet shipments will surpass portable PC shipments this year.
Consequently, Microsoft's appeal to tablet users isn't necessarily ideal for "power users" who rely on a PC to be productive because these users may find that a touch-optimized operating system isn't fully addressing their needs. Perhaps there's a good reason why Apple has Mac OS for productivity and iOS for touch applications, as opposed to an all-in-one solution like Windows 8.1.
The reality of the situation is that Microsoft has to repair Windows 8's poor reputation while also managing declining PC sales. The billion-dollar question for Microsoft is whether or not consumers have already moved beyond the PC thanks to the explosive rise of mobile computing. Perhaps when $300 touch-enabled laptops hit the shelves this holiday season, the attention will turn back to the PC. In the meantime, I'm not sure there's enough improvement built into Windows 8.1 to improve the outlook.