Mobile devices, powered by Google's Android and Apple's iOS, have begun to eat into sales of traditional PCs running Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows operating system. In an attempt to beat back the competition, Microsoft released Windows 8 last year -- a hybrid operating system with both traditional desktop and touch-screen functionality.
But the response has been mixed. PC sales continue to fall; meanwhile, consumers are baffled and upset by the most radical update to Windows since 1995.
That changes today -- or does it? Windows 8.1 is now available for download, and though it improves Windows 8 quite a bit, it isn't the return to classic Windows that many may have been hoping for.
The start button is back! ... But not really
Perhaps the single most upsetting change to Windows was the loss of the start button. For almost two decades, the start button sat in the lower-left corner of every Windows desktop, offering easy access to any and all applications and files stored on a given PC.
Microsoft got rid of the start button with Windows 8 in favor of the touch-optimized Metro interface and system search. Instead of clicking on start, and navigating through menus, Windows 8 users are forced to go through the Metro interface and select the appropriate tile, or swipe from the right, and search with a text box for the desired app, setting or file.
Some developers took advantage of the outrage, building applications to restore the start button. There are now at least a dozen different programs out there -- some free, some paid -- that bring the start button back to Windows 8.
If you bought one of these applications, Windows 8.1 won't make you think you wasted your money. While there is now a button that once sat in the familiar lower-left corner, it doesn't offer classic start button functionality. Instead, this new Windows button simply switches the PC to the Metro interface.
This isn't even that different from Windows 8.0. There's no button, but users of Windows 8 could get to the Metro interface by clicking in the lower-left corner prior to Thursday's update.
Metro remains the focus
Instead of fixing the classic desktop view, most of the updates to Windows 8.1 come in the form of improvements to the Metro interface. Much of this is visual: Metro tiles are now more customizable -- users have more control over their size -- and more animated. Desktop applications get tiles, too, and users can change the background and play with the color scheme.
System search is better as well, with Bing integration that draws in web data alongside local files and applications. Microsoft's own Metro apps -- like Finance and People -- have received improvements, while Skype integration has replaced the old messaging application. SkyDrive, Microsoft's alternative to Dropbox and Google Drive, is now more deeply integrated into the overall operating system, allowing for most of a users' apps, settings and files to live in the cloud.
Microsoft isn't backing down
To be clear, Windows 8.0 is not a mea culpa. Those hoping for a return to the classic Windows feel will be disappointed with Windows 8.1. By nearly all measures, it's a great improvement, but it's clear that Microsoft is staying the course -- Windows 8.1 is much of the same.
The Metro interface continues to be Microsoft's primary focus, and while it's far better in 8.1, it's still the touch-optimized, Windows Phone-like interface that bewildered many long-time, classic Windows users.
So is Windows 8.1 a fix? Not really. It's definitely better, but if you hated Windows 8 before Thursday, Windows 8.1 isn't going to change your mind.