CEO Steve Ballmer touted the variety of devices that run a version of his company's new OS, from smartphones to PCs to the Xbox to tablets. He emphasized that Windows 8 devices leverage the cloud to connect to and enhance one another -- that is, to form not just products, but an ecosystem.
Even Win8.1's detractors agree that the update is an improvement over the original version. A number of analysts, meanwhile, believe Microsoft has made the necessary adjustments to get back in the race.
With corporate deployments still many months -- or years -- away, Win8's fortunes currently rely on consumers and BYOD. It remains to be seen if Microsoft has truly turned a corner with the mass market, or if its flagship product will continue to flounder.
Will Win8.1 convert those who've so far resisted? Here are eight facts about Microsoft's effort to make its new OS better.
1. You can basically turn off the Modern UI.
Technically, those who despise the Modern UI won't be able to fully purge the hated Live Tiles from their Win8.1 experience. The Start button is back, but rather than summoning Windows 7's Start Menu, the Win8.1 version redirects to an "All Apps" screen -- a compromise that Microsoft hopes will mollify perturbed desktop users while keeping its Modern apps from falling out of view.
Whether this tactic works remains to be seen. Certainly, the ability to share backgrounds between the Modern UI and the desktop adds some cohesion to the dual-OS experience. But even if users aren't fully satisfied with the revamped Start button, Microsoft has still added a number of tools to essentially turn Windows 8.1 into a faster, more modern version of Windows 7.
The features include a boot-to-desktop mode and the ability to disable hot corner functions, such as the Charms menu. System controls have also been redistributed such that users no longer have to jump between UIs to access certain tools. And though the Start button might not have been what everyone wanted, it includes the ability to restart or shut down the machine. This feature was absent from the original release, leading to user confusion about the simple task of turning off a device.
2. Microsoft will release updates more frequently, and they will install automatically.
If one theme united the various keynotes at Build, it was Microsoft's accelerated release schedule. Traditionally, the company has launched major products every few years, with substantial changes arriving in large chunks. But Ballmer argued last week that the pace of innovation has changed, and that improvements need to be pushed to users on a near-perpetual basis.
Given that Win 8.1 represents a lot of work in a very short amount of time, Microsoft has clearly begun to execute Ballmer's plan. Whether customers are persuaded by all the changes is still unknown. But the fact that Microsoft made so many adjustments so quickly speaks to the company's agility.
The speedy update schedule means that improvements will reach users more quickly, and could eventually include concurrent release cycles across all Windows platforms. Future updates will also install automatically. It's a good strategy, and one that Windows 8.1 advances.
3. Windows 8.1 is more customizable, includes more user-centric features and hooks more deeply into the cloud.
Windows 8.1 includes a number of new interface controls, including the ability to resize Live Tiles, to share backgrounds between the desktop and the Modern UI and to generally customize how content is displayed. Taken alone, none of the tweaks are revolutionary. But even if most of them are simple Version 2 enhancements, they nonetheless make the UI more attractive and user friendly.
Indeed, at Build, Windows VP Julie Larson-Green emphasized that Microsoft has designed Win 8.1 with the end user in mind. Over the last few years, user-centricism has been Apple's calling card, with Microsoft seen as more concerned with IT admins and business needs. But Larson-Green demonstrated a useful feature in which users can choose auto-fill selections without moving their hand from the onscreen keyboard. Other platforms, such as iOS, require the user to lift his or her hand, which disrupts the continuity of composing a message. Windows 8.1 addresses this problem, and if other features in Win 8.1 keep to the same philosophy, more users will find the update not only useful but also enjoyable.
Windows 8.1 will also include built-in SkyDrive support, a feature that, like the auto-fill function, seeks to add cohesion to the user experience. Ballmer described a new landscape in which users spread work and play across multiple devices. He's not alone in this vision, as cloud services such as iCloud and Google Docs already demonstrate. But Microsoft's cross-device synching is already competitive, and the company is making rapid gains in the cloud. The new version will include, for example, a method by which large, multi-gigabyte files can be accessed on mobile devices without overwhelming those devices' generally limited storage capacities.