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4/18/2013
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Windows Blue: Restoring The Start Button Isn't Enough

Many consumers also resent that Windows 8 forces them to boot to its tablet-focused Live Tile interface. Is Microsoft listening?

Windows: Goofs And Gaffes
Windows: Goofs And Gaffes
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Will Windows 8.1, also known as Windows Blue, restore the exiled Start button to the UI and allow users to bypass the divisive tablet-oriented Metro interface by booting directly to the desktop mode?

The move would resolve one of the most ubiquitous Windows 8 criticisms: that by force-feeding customers the Live Tiles UI, Microsoft has made legacy mouse-and-keyboard applications disjointed and frustrating. Even so, appeasing a single strand of user dissatisfaction will accomplish only so much. Redmond faces numerous challenges as a late entrant to the post-PC era. A reintegrated Start button will help -- but it's not nearly enough.

It remains to be seen if the UI revisions will actually appear in the final product, which is expected to be offered as a public preview in June and as a commercial offering in August. The new gossip comes courtesy of a newly leaked Windows Blue build along with reports from ZDNet and The Verge, publications whose inside sources provided much of the earlier Windows 8.1 gossip. Based on the illicit Windows Blue copies circulation the Internet, this gossip has proved mostly accurate -- so much so that one begins to wonder whether Microsoft is leaking information as a kind of guerilla marketing.

The tipsters' accuracy makes the Start button and boot-to-desktop rumors seem like a good bet. But at least some of the sources have emphasized that Redmond is merely mulling the changes and has yet to commit -- so nothing's official until Ballmer and company say so.

[ In a sea of new mobile hardware options, Microsoft is finding itself in uncharted competitive waters. Read Microsoft's Influence Fading Fast: Gartner. ]

Nevertheless, we're essentially talking about vestiges of Windows 7, not some panacea that will somehow make Win8 more attractive to heretofore trigger-shy consumers.

A return to the familiar will help, make no mistake. Microsoft could engender some good will by making customers feel like their complaints are being heard. The move would also help Redmond validate its entire Blue strategy. The update marks a shift from the monolithic OS updates that have previously occurred every few years to an annual refresh that theoretically allows Redmond to unify its internal development efforts and respond more nimbly to changing markets. Whether Win8.1 lives up to this intention remains to be seen, but it's noteworthy that such major UI corrections could appear less than a year after the OS's much-ballyhooed launch.

There are other benefits, too: easing the Win8 learning curve, and calming concerns that the desktop UI could be forgotten, for starters.

But it isn't enough. The people who care most about the Start Screen are those who use Windows 8 primarily for legacy desktop applications. A lot of these activities fall under business use, and it's been clear, even as the PC cedes ground to smartphones and tablets, that enterprises will continue buying traditional computers for the foreseeable future. A desktop-friendly Windows 8 update will make this group of users happier, and perhaps stop a few iOS and Android devices from encroaching on business workflows -- but it won't increase Microsoft's influence.

Among consumers, meanwhile, the change would likely be even more ineffectual. IDC and Gartner made news last week when they separately declared that the traditional PC's decline isn't a short-term trend; rather, the analysts said, it's a fundamental shift in user preference, an acknowledgement that tablets handle the most common computing needs more effectively and inexpensively than PCs.

Intel's recent 25% drop in quarterly earnings reinforced this conclusion. If consumers wanted new laptops and desktops during the holidays, they could have looked to new Windows 8 devices, which were admittedly hurting for touch-equipped models, to Windows 7 options, or to a variety of Apple products. Intel's rough quarter, though, demonstrates that Windows 8 wasn't the only OS getting pulverized in December; instead, damages was absorbed through x86's entire personal computing empire.

Consumers will still buy PCs, of course, but new machines will be communal devices for the entire household. A family that had three of four computers a few years ago is likely to replace only one of these devices with a new PC. The others are likely to be phased out in favor of tablets. Being the cheaper and more personal option, tablets are also likely to be updated more often. If tablets take over email, media consumption and Web surfing while the PC is relegated to word processing, Photoshop and other confined tasks, many users wait as long as possible before buying a costly new desktop.

The iPhone and iPad are often credited with initiating the PC's downward slide. Google, meanwhile, claims it is registering 1.5 million Android users per day -- meaning that the search giant welcomes more users into its ecosystem in two days than the Surface Pro and RT have brought into the Microsoft fold in total.

Even if Redmond maintains its grip over silos of the business world, it will still lose some enterprise business if BYOD trends continue to favor competitors. Modest losses in the workplace combined with low consumer adoption could mean that Windows will never regain the influence it held just a few years ago.

So while Windows Blue should improve matters, Microsoft continues to face a trinity of obstacles: Windows 8 devices are too expensive; Windows 8's hybrid personality is too schizophrenic for desktop users; and Windows 8 doesn't have enough apps to satisfy tablet users.

In confronting these challenges, Microsoft has made some progress. Outgoing Intel CEO Paul Otellini suggested Atom-powered Windows 8 tablets might cost as little as $200 while offering meaningful improvements in speed, battery life and video performance. I've previously argued that cheap devices are a prerequisite to increased adoption, and by extension, to increased developer interest, so Microsoft is making the right moves on this front. It needs to continue pushing premium devices as well, but the company needs a bigger Win8 user base if these more expensive options are to be more than niche products.

Microsoft recently updated a number of native Windows 8 Modern UI apps, the second time the company has done so since launch. Such efforts are wise, both as refinements to the user experience and as guides for developers. They're also adding useful functionality; the Maps app now has walking and transit directions, for example, something iOS's equivalent still lacks.

Even so, these updates are still more about catching up than about defining a unique and compelling brand identity. I'm sure a few skiers will think it's pretty cool that the Windows 8 Weather app can now deliver reports on snow conditions, for example, but it's not the sort of feature that will persuade me to buy a new device, and I don't think I'm alone.

That means that though the price issue might be sorting itself out, the user experience doubts will persist. If Windows Blue doesn't address this concern, Microsoft will continue to play from behind. With a more frequent update cycle, the company could still catch up -- but if the changes continue to involve evolutionary refinements rather than brand-defining new experiences, Redmond could eventually find itself too far behind to compete for consumer mindshare.

It will please many users if Microsoft officially resurrects the Start button over the next few weeks, but Windows 8.1 will need a few more surprises if it's going to turn the tide.

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peterlee5432346
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peterlee5432346,
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8/20/2014 | 3:05:56 AM
re: Windows Blue: Restoring The Start Button Isn't Enough
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peterlee5432346
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peterlee5432346,
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8/20/2014 | 3:04:44 AM
re: Windows Blue: Restoring The Start Button Isn't Enough
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peterlee5432346
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peterlee5432346,
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8/20/2014 | 3:03:29 AM
re: Windows Blue: Restoring The Start Button Isn't Enough
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peterlee5432346
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peterlee5432346,
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8/20/2014 | 3:01:10 AM
re: Windows Blue: Restoring The Start Button Isn't Enough
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CopyingAppleIsDangerous
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CopyingAppleIsDangerous,
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5/13/2013 | 8:24:51 PM
re: Windows Blue: Restoring The Start Button Isn't Enough
The interface is not hard to understand. That's the problem. We get the Fisher-Price Mickey-Mouse interface. Engineers, especially...have no problems what so ever understanding that crap. We want it out of our way. You can call it innovation, call us intransigent, whatever...but fact is...many of the people complaining know 10x as much about electronics/computers as the W8 fanboys who are pushing it. Get it? No mystery here. We know that Windows 8 is little more than a shell namespace extension.

We hate it.
Terabyte Net
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Terabyte Net,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/2/2013 | 12:26:47 PM
re: Windows Blue: Restoring The Start Button Isn't Enough
Michael, may I submit the possibility that Win8 hasn't caught on with consumers for a few reasons that really have been ignored: 1) Win7 was very good. Vista, on the RIGHT hardware was very good. XP was around for so long that everyone assume it was very good (I'll take a Win7 x64 or Win8 x64 box on the same hardware up against any build of XP for speed and stability). 2) Since the introduction of multi-core CPUs and much cheaper RAM the lack of speed for most consumers and general business desktops has not been a reason to upgrade. Moore's Law finally caught up with the market place's demand for speed. 3) Reliability has improved so much in the past 5-10 years that I see PCs in production that are approaching 10 years old and still work. At a customer of mine that has 11 point-of-sale systems along with 45 computers and servers in various other roles, the POS machines were all purchased many years ago for other purposes, marketing, sales, management, etc... and have been repurposed to the lower-power-requirement tasks of simply running the POS system. The machines are blazing fast at selling product and are essentially free equipment after this many years. They keep 1-2 older systems around as spares in case one fails, but why should a business replace what works (assuming they can either afford to wait for a replacement PC or have spares)?

Articles have focused on the lack of sales assuming it's Win8's GUI. I submit it's not the GUI. It's not the toys on the market. I submit it's because the systems people bought, like the quad core Win7 x64 box I'm writing this post on, that were purchased several years ago, 3-+ in my case, are running great and are not in need of an upgrade at this time. Win8 just got caught in the crossfire of the toy craze (and again your 80% claim really doesn't sound valid).
Terabyte Net
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Terabyte Net,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/2/2013 | 12:13:27 PM
re: Windows Blue: Restoring The Start Button Isn't Enough
80%, really? Where did you get that number? The only way "80% of the tasks" could possibly be valid is if people are read e-mail, visiting web sites, playing Angry Birds, all day long etc...; however, if one actually wants to get paid or succeed in school, one had better not be doing that all day long.
Terabyte Net
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Terabyte Net,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/2/2013 | 12:10:35 PM
re: Windows Blue: Restoring The Start Button Isn't Enough
Michael, if a customer's computing needs are met by an iToy then they are using Facebook, browsing the web, and playing Angry Birds and not much else. You're trying to compare a pet rock with a Golden Retriever. Both can be considered pets, but which one is actually the pet? The Win8 GUI is only a problem because pundits and editors made it a problem. An 8MB download fixes the Start Menu "problem" and bypasses Metro at startup and while I'd love to see a native Start Button back, toys are just that, toys. They are not business friendly nor are they even student friendly. Write a 10,000 word essay with charts, graphs, footnotes, etc... on an iToy without a keyboard.
The Humungus
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The Humungus,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/1/2013 | 6:46:24 PM
re: Windows Blue: Restoring The Start Button Isn't Enough
Girls, here's my 2 duckets:

The far majority of people are NOT CAD Engineers and are NOT insane addicted 3D gamers who have to have the very fastest and most powerful available to squeeze out every pixel they can. As opposed to 15 years ago or even 10 years ago, the latest stat is that 84% of people's use of the computer now is mainly for internet. Most people don't even use hard core programs like they used to (I would exclude my comment from big Corps. and many tech professionals). That's why tablets have gone through the roof like they have the past few years. And tablets aren't even real computers, they're toys with toy O/S's! Bottom line is, most people are going to welcome a full PC in the form of a thin and light touch tablet. That's what the MS Surface Pro is about and that's where its all going. That's why HP, Samsung, Dell, and the rest are now jumping on that train. Mark it down. There will always be a small percentage of people (like I used to be) who have to have that Desktop PC Monster. I burnt out (5 years ago) building, overclocking, liquid cooling, nitrous oxide injected PC Monsters. Just don't need it anymore. And neither does 95% of the pop now. The entire industry is progressing (evolving?) into another animal. No matter what Microsoft does, it will become like IBM. No longer the almighty god, but still big and relevant.
jsnapp863
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jsnapp863,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/19/2013 | 10:52:14 PM
re: Windows Blue: Restoring The Start Button Isn't Enough
Their largest hurdle is non-support. They just haven't developed a game-plan that works. Once a product is out the door, the next one is the focus. Every time. They more or less let the expert users submit bugs - since the advent of WinXP (SP1), started heavily using forums, instead of support pages, to discover and remediate issues. The only thing that has saved their bacon so far was WinXP. Although they learned to just make small improvements to keep all of those businesses who used (and continue to use) it feel warm and fuzzy, they became greedy and attempted a "quantum leap" with Vista, Win7 and now Win8, which is so far out of the box, it's not understood, not required in a business environment, not trusted, nor selling.
Back to basics should be their mantra...
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