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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