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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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chrisdfl
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chrisdfl,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/18/2013 | 4:13:42 PM
re: Windows Blue: Restoring The Start Button Isn't Enough
While we're at it, let's bring back 8-tracks, BetaMax and LaserDiscs. If left to their own devices, most individuals prefer to keep the status quo; it's the companies that drive innovation and pull people there, albeit sometimes begrudgingly. People like things the way they are, change is bad but after 3,6,9 months and some time "behind the wheel" then all of a sudden they can't live without it. Give it a chance; YES it's different, YES it's a learning curve, but in the end, it's less clicking. I have Surface and a laptop both running Windows 8 and even as a technologist, it took me several days to get use to it before I felt comfortable in navigating around quickly.
AlfieJr
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AlfieJr,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/18/2013 | 4:18:54 PM
re: Windows Blue: Restoring The Start Button Isn't Enough
Very good summary of the MS situation. just left out one thing: MS has to stop the bleeding ASAP. the PC market will nearly freeze as people wait for Blue before committing to a new PC. if Blue is set for August, that is 1/3 of a year of lost sales from now. and the OEM's are screaming already. any further delay would be a near catastrophe.

and MS better not offer only a half-way fix with Blue. that could be fatal - the apocryphal "beginning of the end."

LeeWissmiller
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LeeWissmiller,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/18/2013 | 4:30:06 PM
re: Windows Blue: Restoring The Start Button Isn't Enough
I really don't understand the issues. I have done this with one very simple free application added to Windows 8. I default to the Windows 8 desktop and have a start menu. Why cant people just look at their alternatives instead of judging?
Jedddie
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Jedddie,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/18/2013 | 5:54:48 PM
re: Windows Blue: Restoring The Start Button Isn't Enough
So the PC is dead, and smartphones and tablets reign supreme? Go find some of the programmers who are writing the operating systems and apps for those devices. Ask them what they use for their development and coding. See how many of them use smartphones or tablets. When there's real work to be done, only a real computer will suffice.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
4/18/2013 | 7:48:25 PM
re: Windows Blue: Restoring The Start Button Isn't Enough
Thanks for reading, Jedddie. No, the PC isn't dead-- as the article states, both businesses and consumers will continue to buy PCs for years to come. I've tried to underscore this point in all the recent Windows 8 coverage; recent stories have highlighted, for instance, that analysts predict 270 PCs will be shipped in 2017. That's a massive volume. It might not match up to the PC's zenith, but by any standard, 270 million is a lot of product. Another recent article also posed a question similar to the one you allude to: what's the likelihood that we see Metro apps from SAP or Oracle anytime soon? So, yes, PCs will continue to be an essential tool for programmers, many business professionals, digital artists, scientists-- anyone, really, who needs high-powered, no-nonsense software for their job.

But that doesn't change the fact that Windows 8 hasn't caught on with consumers. In that market, yes, smartphones and tablets reign supreme, and a lot of people have even found ways to "real work" with the devices. Tablets certainly have their limits, so I don't see iOS and Android taking over the enterprise-- but they'll eat into the traditional Windows market share a little. That modest loss coupled with more substantial contraction in the consumer space means that Microsoft could go - in less than a decade - from running 90% of personal devices to running less than a third. That possibility isn't about the death of the PC; it's about about Redmond's status within the tech universe.

Michael Endler, IW Associate Editor
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
4/18/2013 | 8:14:10 PM
re: Windows Blue: Restoring The Start Button Isn't Enough
It's a fair point, and one others have brought up. There are workarounds that address the Start button issue.

But that's one reason I doubt bringing back these Windows 7 remnants will do much good for Microsoft in the long run. The Start button and desktop access just aren't big deals, at least not in relative terms. I have no problem with Microsoft including a boot-to-desktop mode or reintegrating the Start button-- but there are much bigger fish to fry. Still, those bigger fish are still metaphors for the same criticism that surrounds the Start button omissions: ease of use.

I can see why Redmond wanted to forcefully socialize users into the Live Tile universe-- but the Modern UI honestly wasn't polished enough for that sort of tactic. Not at the initial prices, anyhow. There's certainly a group of people who will see Windows 8 for what it offers, and who will happily find their own solutions for any of the OS's shortcomings. But consumers are at the core of the issue here, and tablets have conditioned people to expect interfaces that require very little training. One could certainly defend the philosophy Microsoft is demonstrating with its charm functions-- but actually accessing the tools is not that intuitive. If a device is expensive, consumers expect it to work out of the box-- not corner them into learning curves that competing devices somehow avoid.

And if consumers do put up with a learning curve, they expect to be rewarded for the effort. I know some people consider Windows 8 appropriately rewarding-- but there's a much larger group for whom Windows 8 has so far asked too much while delivering too little. I expect that to change by the Fall, when the market will boast touch-enabled devices with not only Windows 8.1 but also the newest Intel chips. These devices won't restore Redmond to its former glory-- but I suspect some of them will be pretty desirable at the high end and pretty cheap at the low end, a nice recipe for increased adoption. For now, though, I don't think Microsoft has shown average users the kinds of experiences (you'll notice I've used that word a lot when assessing Windows 8, both here and elsewhere) that engender enthusiasm.

Tablets can allegedly handle around 80% of the tasks that used to fall to PCs, or at least that's the number I've heard tossed around lately. If that's remotely accurate, I can see why consumers have turned their noses up at the initial round of Windows 8 offerings. For a majority of consumers, tablets do the things they need a computing device to do-- and they do them more intuitively and inexpensively than Win8 PCs.

To a heavy PC user, all this might sound silly-- but the people who typically read an IT-centric news site aren't the same people dictating market trends en masse. Those people used Windows in the past because it was the only option for many of them. Sure, there was always OS X, but Apple's machines are expensive, especially relative to the commodity PCs that, prior to Windows 8, dominated most of the budget-friendly personal computing price points. Some of these Windows users will stick with Microsoft because they like Windows. But others will drift to new options because, for the first time since the modern Redmond monopoly staked its ground, it's become practical and affordable to do so.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
4/18/2013 | 8:33:09 PM
re: Windows Blue: Restoring The Start Button Isn't Enough
It's a valid point, and one others have espoused. I think it depends on the kind of relationship the user wants to have with the device. Some people, after becoming acclimated to the new UI, might conclude that Windows 8 is an improvement over Windows 7. I've certainly found that it crashes less than Windows 7.

But if the customer's computing needs are already met by an iPad, does the effort required to master Windows 8 add enough extra value? I can see arguments where the answer is "yes"; I, for example, spend too much time in word documents or multi-tasking to consider any of the current iOS or Android devices as my primary computing tool. But for the broader consumer market, "less clicking" might not hold sway. It's the difficulty Microsoft faces-- it's trying to be all things to all people, and to all businesses. It's a goal that takes time to get right, and the accelerated update cycle that Windows Blue will initiate will help. But there will be a point at which Microsoft will go from "trying to catch" to " stuck in third place." I don't know where that point is, and neither do the analysts I've spoken to. It's also hard to say how much consumer adoption actually Microsoft needs if it continues to dominate the business scene. But everyone agrees that this "point" is out there. And that puts pressure on Microsoft to make Windows Blue a more delightful and intuitive experience.
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...
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.
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.
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