Microsoft made progress during the past few weeks but still has important things to prove. For starters, think Start screen and wearables.
Windows 8.1 Update 1: 10 Key Changes
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Microsoft has earned a lot of praise this month and for good reason: The company faced tough questions in the first half of April and answered most of them with aplomb.
Some feared Microsoft had missed the chance to cash in on iOS's success, for example, but Office apps for the iPad quickly leapt to the top of the App Store charts. At Build, the company also introduced new Azure and Visual Studio features aimed squarely at iOS developers, including those who don't develop for Windows.
Microsoft additionally made most Windows licenses free for OEMs, finally showing some spunk after manufacturers spent much of 2013 touting Android and Chrome over Windows. It also released the Windows 8.1 update to appease disenchanted desktop users, throwing in a sneak peak of a future Start menu for good measure. And that's not to mention Cortana and the rest of Windows Phone 8.1, Universal Windows Apps, or the 40-plus other features added to Azure.
It's been a good month for new Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella but his company still has much to prove, particularly among consumers.
But good as the last few weeks have been for Microsoft, they aren't a panacea for all the company's challenges. Many of its remaining uphill battles involve consumer products, which is perhaps unsurprising, given that critics say the company should focus more resources on enterprise products. Where does Microsoft still need to prove itself? Here are six pressing questions.
1. Will the Modern UI ever be popular? At Build, Nadella made clear that Microsoft is dedicated to Modern-style apps. But whereas the original version of Windows 8 tethered Modern apps to the tiled Start screen, the new Windows 8.1 update severs the cord. The Start screen is still there, but if users want to, they can run Modern apps without ever leaving the desktop. The Live Tile-infused Start menu that Microsoft OS chief Terry Myerson showed at Build only reinforces this concept.
Although it's a smart move, this change is a radical departure from Microsoft's earlier strategy. The company's initial determination to familiarize users with the Start screen was so strong that a boot-to-desktop mode wasn't even included. Yes, the recent update includes a few tweaks to make the Start screen more usable on non-touch machines, but one wonders, given Microsoft's backpedaling, if the Start screen will ever be popular on non-tablet devices, or if future Windows desktop PCs might even drop the Start screen while keeping Modern apps.
In a screenshot from Microsoft Research's now-removed video, Live Tiles can show deeper content, such as an email inbox, and even launch desktop applications.
Although these questions won't be answered immediately, Microsoft appears to have inadvertently leaked some of the Live Tile concepts that could show up in future Windows releases. Microsoft Research posted a video in which Human-Computer Interaction Group researcher Jiawei Gui demonstrates Live Tiles that allow users to drill down into app contents without launching into full-screen mode. If the user clicks on the Email app, for example, she can view her inbox from within the Tile. Gui also showed off a new Desktop Tile that displays all running desktop software and even allows users to launch these titles from within the Live Tile. "You can do everything on the Start screen now," Gui said.
2. Will the Surface line ever appeal to the mainstream? Following the introduction of new models and price cuts to the original generation, Microsoft's Surface tablets are selling better. However, as of earlier this year, it was still losing money. Tablet OEMs now get Windows 8.1 licenses for free, which takes pressure off the Surface line to be a standard-bearer -- but if Microsoft doesn't intend to create superlative devices, why continue to invest so many resources in the first place?
For mobile professionals and others who value two-in-one convenience, tablets like the Surface and Surface Pro have a place. But to appeal to mainstream users, many of whom use PCs and tablets separately, Microsoft needs more.
Developments such as Universal Windows Apps could help Windows tablets, which still boast fewer apps than iPads or Android tablets. Microsoft tried with the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 to tailor the devices around the company's
Michael Endler joined InformationWeek as an associate editor in 2012. He previously worked in talent representation in the entertainment industry, as a freelance copywriter and photojournalist, and as a teacher. Michael earned a BA in English from Stanford University in 2005 ... View Full Bio