At face value, the tweaks smooth over several of Windows 8's most-criticized rough edges. What remains to be seen, however, is if the new features' implementations will mollify detractors, or merely shift criticism for the OS, which has struggled to gain users, in a different direction.
Corporate VP for Windows Program Management Antoine Leblond confirmed the new features in a blog post. Specifically, he said "Boot to Desktop is Coming" and "the Start Button is Back -- Sort of."
Rather than replicating the Windows 7 button, the new version will connect to the Start screen -- that is, to the same Live Tile interface to which Windows 8 currently boots. Users can set the button to summon an "All Apps" view, however, in which app icons can be arranged by usage, installation date, name or category.
The Start button will most likely benefit traditional mouse-and-keyboard users, but users with touchscreens will be able to access "All Apps" by swiping from the bottom of the display. The Start button will be visible at the bottom of the taskbar when the user is in desktop mode but will only appear in the Modern UI if the user moves the mouse to the lower left-hand corner of the screen. Microsoft also said that newly installed apps will only appear on the Start Screen if the user pins them there.
And yes, Win 8.1 will allow users to boot directly to either the desktop or the "All Apps" screen in Windows 8.1.
Windows 8.1 will feature greater multitasking flexibility within the Modern UI. Users will be able to run up to three apps per screen, and multi-monitor viewing will be supported. Each open app can be freely resized, and users can run multiple windows of the same app, such as two instances of Internet Explorer.
Windows 8 currently forces users to jump from the Modern UI to the desktop when they need to access the Control Panel. Windows 8.1 will make more tools equally accessible in either interface. Leblond specifically mentioned controls for display resolution, power options, system information, product keys, Windows Update and SkyDrive.
Live Tiles will come in more sizes, bringing some welcome customization to the Start screen. Users can also use the same background for both the Start screen and the desktop, an option that could make moving between the UIs more cohesive.
Leblond stated people inadvertently move tiles on the Start screen. For that reason, Windows 8.1 will require that users press and hold -- or, for desktop users, right click -- an icon before moving it around.
In Windows 8.1, the search function will return files, apps, Bing Web results and SkyDrive files. Windows 8.1 also will feature stronger and more numerous hooks to SkyDrive.
Windows 8.1's native apps are getting upgraded. The blog post said, for example, that the Photos app will include editing features, and that the Music app has been redesigned.
Leblond offered little information about IE11, expect that users will be able to open as many tabs as they want, and that open tabs can be synced across all Win8.1 devices.
Indeed, most of the features that Leblond confirmed have been part of the rumor mill for months. Nevertheless, most Win8 critics are likely to welcome this news, which suggests Microsoft is both listening to and acting on customer feedback. That said, these adjustments do not constitute a panacea for Windows 8's woes.
At least one report suggests, for example, that Windows 8 users -- even those on tablets -- have relatively little use for Modern-style apps. By allowing users to boot directly to the desktop, Microsoft will remove the mechanism that currently forces users to look at those apps each time Win8 boots up. With that strong-arming no longer in play, what must Redmond do to keep Modern apps from languishing? Will Windows 8.1's refreshed native apps be a step in the right direction?
And what about traditional desktop users? Leblond promises that this group has not been forgotten, and to mouse-reliant users, Windows 8.1 should be easier to navigate than the current version. But is it enough to tempt Windows 7 users to upgrade their desktops?
Only time will tell. For the present, Leblond promised that more information will be revealed between now and late June, when Microsoft is slated to release a preview version of Windows 8.1 at its Build conference in San Francisco. The official version is expected to begin shipping in the following months.
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