Windows 8 might be primed to make gains.
All the pieces will need to come together by this fall, lest Redmond suffer poor back-to-school and holiday sales for the second consecutive year. But June will still be the OS's first major proving ground. At the beginning of the month, the company will face many of its corporate customers and developers at its TechEd conference in New Orleans, and at the end of the month, it is expected to debut a preview version of Windows 8.1 during its developer-centric Build conference in San Francisco.
[ Is Windows 8.1 doomed by its own release date? Read Windows 8.1 Timing All Wrong. ]
Until Redmond actually divulges new details, it remains to be seen how much -- and how quickly -- its new OS will change. Even so, June represents an opportunity for Redmond to reclaim the Win8 narrative and to circumvent a summer of continued negative buzz. Here are five Windows 8 criticisms Microsoft is likely to address in the next 30 days:
1. Windows 8's learning curve is too confusing.
Even Windows CMO/CFO Tami Reller now admits that Windows 8 needs to be easier to use, but Microsoft officials have also stalwartly defended the new OS's Live Tile-oriented Modern UI as a key part of the Windows line's long-term vision. Redmond recognizes, in other words, the need to mollify confused and dissatisfied users, but it's not clear how willing the company is to make tweaks.
The rumor mill has already concentrated on several potential fixes -- namely, whether Microsoft will restore the Start button or allow desktop users to boot directly to the desktop. If Win 8.1 integrates these features, aggravated users will no doubt appreciate that familiar tools have been resurrected to help them along. But it won't be enough.
Many Win8 features rely on hidden controls, such as the Charms Bar, which is central to navigating the OS but only accessible if users know how to swipe it into visibility. This sort of absence of visual clues or other guides has contributed to Win8 user frustration, and many will expect Microsoft not only to implement key features -- such as a "boot to desktop" mode -- but also to make the OS more intuitive from top to bottom.
2. Windows 8 is too schizophrenic.
This criticism is related to the above but deserves its own breakout category. For all the success Microsoft users have enjoyed syncing documents across devices via SkyDrive, it's ironic that cohesion between Win8's two interfaces is so poor. Internet Explorer is a particularly notable offender; if a user switches from IE in the Modern UI to IE in the traditional desktop mode, the Web browser will behave like a distinct app in each environment. Open tabs can't be synced as the user jumps from one UI to the other, for example. Windows 8.1 is rumored to include IE11, so Microsoft will have a chance to address this problem, and it's also rumored to include similar fixes, such as making the Control Panel equally accessible in each environment.
3. Windows 8 doesn't have enough apps.
The Windows Store now included nearly 80,000 Modern apps -- a far cry from the 700,000 or so that both iOS and Android enjoy, but still a substantial tally that somewhat negates the "not enough" criticisms. Microsoft isn't out of the woods, though; if the problem was originally "not enough," it's morphed into "not good enough."
Indeed, at least one study has suggested that Win8 users barely touch Modern apps, and it's not unreasonable to implicate Microsoft's lackluster native apps for setting a weak example. The OS's built-in Mail app, for example, lacks the functionality offered in Outlook.com, Microsoft's free Web mail service. To Redmond's credit, the company has been making efforts to attract developers, and Windows Store submissions have picked up after leveling off during the first few months of the year. Even so, there's still more work to be done.
4. Windows RT seems pointless.
Windows 8 has attracted its share of criticism, but Windows RT has been an absolute dud, with -- literally -- a 0% share of the OS market, and little support from OEMs. Microsoft raised many eyebrows when it decided to split its new OS into full-fledged and lightweight versions, and the decision makes even less sense today than it did then.
By this fall, Atom-based Win8 tablets could cost as little as $300 to $400 -- less, in other words, than Microsoft initially charged for its Surface RT. If the complete OS -- including its x86 access, which RT lacks -- can be had for such a low price, why should anyone pay comparable sums for an RT device? Will Redmond and its partners produce RT offerings that are cheaper than low-cost Android tablets? Will Microsoft and company reveal some other appeal?
Rumors have suggested Microsoft will debut a smaller Surface model this month, possibly an RT-based tablet to compete with the iPad Mini. It remains to be seen if this gossip translates to a real product, but it certainly adds to the intrigue in the meantime.
5. Windows 8 offers nothing for desktop users.
Windows chief Julie Larson-Green has insisted in recent weeks that Windows 8's new Start Screen is superior to the Start button it replaces. So far, desktop users haven't been persuaded. Worse, some traditional users have felt alienated by Redmond's recent touch-centricism. For desktop users, Win8 features some stability improvements under the hood -- but the benefits of the Modern UI, such as they are, have so far been most apparent on tablets.
Microsoft knows that many enterprises are still moving to Windows 7, and that a large portion of its user base might consequently wait to upgrade again until Windows 9 appears. Nevertheless, many will look for the company to reassert its dedication to not only today's mobile-oriented BYOD users but also the desktop-minded users who've helped Microsoft make its name.