Windows 8.1: A Step Forward, a Ways To Go

Windows 8.1 has arrived, at least in preview form. And while it shows that Microsoft has made significant improvements in the eight months since the original version of Windows 8 shipped, it also shows just how far the software has to go before it becomes a truly useful advance.

I have been running 8.1 for the past week on a Lenovo ThinkPad Helix, a convertible design that gave the experience of using it both on a more-or-less conventional touchscreen laptop and on a standalone table. I would also have liked to try it on a Hewlett-Packard Envy x2 convertible, but the current preview edition does not work on the Envy’s Atom processor (the Helix is powered by an Intel i5.)

Microsoft seems anxious to have as many people as possible try 8.1, an unusual approach to software that has not been officially released. While Apple is restricting access to the preview version of OS X Mavericks to registered, paid members of the Mac development program, Microsoft is advertising 8.1 to all comers in the Windows store. It’s a big download, over two gigabytes, but the installation was painless.

The two most talked-about changes in 8.1 turn out to be no big deal. A simple change in Taskbar properties gives a number of new startup options, including booting directly to the legacy Desktops instead of the new Metro-style startup screen. But since all it ever took to get from the Start screen to the Desktop was a single click or screen tap, this isn’t exactly a revolution.

Similarly, the return of the Start button has been greatly exaggerated (though, in fairness, Microsoft has been making it clear for some time what the new Start button would do.) What’s new is a Windows icon at the far left of the Taskbar, where Windows 7’s round Start button used to be. Tapping it has exactly the same effect as pressing the Windows key on the keyboard or swiping in from the right and tapping Start: It brings up the Start page. If the appropriate property is set, it will take you to the Apps list instead, which is kinda, sorta like the old Start menu. (If this option is chosen, it affects all three methods; all will bring up the Apps list instead of the Start page.) But I never considered the absence of the Start button as anywhere close to the heart of Windows 8’s problems, so I find the value of this change to be modest.[pullquote]I never considered the absence of the Start button as anywhere close to the heart of Windows 8’s problems, so I find the value of this change to be modest.[/pullquote]

Far more useful is a major expansion in your ability to configure and control your system from within the Metro interface. In the original version of Windows 8, all but the simplest tasks required opening a Desktop control panel. 8.1 lets you do most of the chores you encounter with any frequency by tapping the Change PC Settings option you are offered with the Settings charm, from adding or modifying a user account to choosing accessibility options. This is a considerable benefit when working without a keyboard in tablet mode; those Desktop control panels are very difficult to handle with touch. One area where the new approach falls short, though, is networking; dealing with any real connectivity issues, including any troubleshooting, still requires going to Desktop.

Another significant change is greater flexibility in showing more than one app in Metro. The original version let you open a second app, but it was restricted to a vertical strip of a quarter of the screen on the left or right. Now you can choose among a quarter, a third, or half of the screen and, on big enough displays, you can open three apps. But they are still restricted to non-overlapping vertical strips, an arrangement far inferior to traditional windows on larger displays. Choosing which applications get to share the screen is also an unnecessarily fiddly process.

Many of the annoyances from the original Windows 8 remain. The need to switch between Metro and Desktop modes is reduced but not eliminated, regards of your choice of primary mode, and Desktop is still mostly unusable in touch. (Lenovo’s inclusion of a stylus with the Helix is helpful, but at the same time an admission of failure.) And after eight months, the lack of third-party Metro remains a huge problem. The necessity to switch to Desktop could be greatly reduced if there were more native apps available.

There’s also the problem that Windows 8 does not let you chose different default apps in different modes. Where Metro versions exist, they are the defaults; for example, clicking on a picture file in Desktop opens the Metro Photos app rather than the Desktop Photo Viewer. There’s no way to set separate defaults for each mode if that’s what you would prefer. The exception is Internet Explorer 11, where the appropriate version opens in each mode. But only if IE is your default browser. If you switch to, say, Chrome, you will get the Desktop version of IE in both Desktop and Metro. Go figure.

The real test for Windows 8 will come this fall, when Microsoft plans to unveil a touch-optimized version of Office. Its big selling point for Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets such as the Surface Pro and Surface has been the unique availability of Office. But Office, even with the touch enhancements of Office 2013, is a deeply unsatisfactory experience on a tablet.

Tabletizing Office is no easy task. To work well with touch, its interface has to be simplified radically, meaning that many features will have to be eliminated or hidden. With a 20-year history of Office applications providing every option, bell, or whistle that any user might want, this sort of pruning runs deeply against the grain. But including too many features will, ironically, seriously compromise usability. It will be very interesting to see what choices Microsoft makes.

Finally, a plea to Microsoft and its OEM partners: Please fix the behavior of touchpads in Desktop. Laptops designed for Windows 8 generally come with large, no-button touchpads. MacBooks set the standard for these some years ago: A one-finger tap acts like a normal mouse click, a two-finger tap brings up a context menu. This works on Windows touchpads but, in keeping with the Windows philosophy that there must always be more than one way to do anything, a tap on the right side of the touchpad, with one or two fingers, also brings up a context menu. This is disorienting, unnecessary, and symptomatic of Microsoft’s inability to ever let anything go.

Lenovo, to its credit, offers its own solution. A tab buried deep in the Mouse control panel lets you restrict the right-click effect to a small area of the pad. It even lets you set the area in the lower right corner when you are using the touchpad as a pointer and in the upper right corner when you are using the ThinkPad eraser-head TrackPoint. It’s a rare win for traditional, flexibility, and convenience. Windows 8 could use a few more of these.

Windows 8.1 Does Little to Boost Holiday 2013 Sales

Last week, I tuned into Microsoft’s Channel 9 to listen to keynotes and developer lectures for MS BUILD, Microsoft’s developer conference. BUILD attracts Microsoft devotees from its developer community for PCs, phones, servers and even XBOX.

The biggest item on everyone’s mind was Windows 8.1 and how Microsoft planned to breathe developer life into the platform. The conference was set against a backdrop of flagging PC sales and a PC ecosystem that is one edge, anxious to decide where they should be making their future investments. When BUILD concluded and the smoke cleared, my takeaway was that Windows 8.1 is a step forward, but will do little to boost holiday 2013 sales. Ironically, the hardware could make a difference. Let’s start with what 8.1 brings to the table.

Windows 8.1 was about two things- making Windows 8 more comfortable for traditional Windows desktop users and completing the base Windows tablet experience. Here is a list of the top features making it easier for desktop users:

  • Adding back the Start menu: While in the desktop app, clicking on the white Windows flag takes you back to the start screen in Metro. Right-clicking the flag let’s you shut down the system and access key desktop settings.
  • Boot to Desktop: Windows 8.1 let’s you boot to the desktop app, which is essentially the Windows 7 experience .
  • Remove Charms: Allows users to disable charms when you place your cursor in the top right or bottom right corner of the display.
  • Jump to All Apps: Upon pressing the Windows flag in desktop, this can take you to the All Apps page. If selected in settings, this means users will never have to see a Live Tile unless they want to.

So literally, if you don’t want to see much of anything that Windows 8 brings over Windows 7, Windows 8.1 will let you do that. Let’s move to the Windows 8.1 features that signify completion of the base Windows 8 tablet experience:

  • 8″ tablets: Windows 8.1 supports 8″ tablets, the volume driver in its category.
  • System-wide search: Instead of choosing between searching for apps, settings or files, the new search searches everything. This reminds me of Windows 7 and of OS X, but is arguably a better search than 8.
  • Basic photo and video editing: Windows 8 had no photo or video editing, obviously a feature left on the cutting room floor given every major OS has this already, including Windows 7. Windows 8.1 brings some basic and touch-optimized tools to the table. I really like the dials in photo editing.
  • Improved App Snapping: Windows 8 limited users to simultaneously display two apps, one occupying 75% of the display and one occupying the other 25% of the display. This limited the amount and kind of apps users could run. 8.1 adds up to 4 windows of varying sizes. This is a big step but I find it still difficult to get the windows in the right place.
  • Miracast: This enables 8.1 devices to wirelessly share their display when connected to a Miracast-certified devices listed here. This really helps plug the AirPlay hole. I have yet to test this feature pervasively, but I hope it is nearly as solid as AirPlay or it won’t be widely adopted.
  • Tile customization: Tiles can be 4 different sizes and similar apps can be assembled together with header names. This isn’t as clear as folders but extends the platform and makes it simpler than before.

[pullquote]All of these improvements to the desktop and tablet mode are a real step forward, but unfortunately won’t make a big difference on sales in holiday 2013. [/pullquote]

Why? You first have to understand what’s holding Windows 8 back in the consumer marketplace.

As I have been very consistent on, I am a believer that the closer the PC gets to the tablet, consumers will be more likely to buy a new PC. It won’t be one watershed event, but a long term evolution of the PC into the simple, always on, always updated, snappy, thin, light, reliable, with many apps, and 10+ hour battery life device. Many users appreciate this today in the the iPad, Nexus, Galaxy, Kindle Fire, etc.

The clear majority of Windows 8 PCs shipped up to this point, however, were quite different than the optimal. Most delivered three hours battery life, were heavy, difficult to use versus a tablet, weren’t touch-based, weren’t always-on or always connected, a bit lethargic and didn’t offer the consumer app library. Either that or they were expensive if you couldn’t use them as a “2 in 1” device (some usage models yes, but not all). What problems does Windows 8.1 help solve? Let me give 8.1 credit where it is due- 8.1 is simpler and more robust than 8. For the other consumer issues outlined above, 8.1 doesn’t improve a whole lot of anything. While I was initially excited about the prospect of an 8″ tablet, it was squelched by the awful reviews of Acer’s 8″ tablet. I didn’t sense confidence after listening to BUILD that tier 1 and 2 apps will grow in numbers, even though I was excited about Facebook coming to the platform.

Does this mean the industry should pack it in for holiday 2013 and go home? Absolutely not, as hardware could help turn the tide for Holiday 2013. Between Intel, AMD, Qualcomm, Nvidia and their OEMs, they have the ability to bring the required touch-based snappiness, always-on, always-connected, thin, light, with 10+ hours battery life to tablets and convertibles, all at a decent price. Think of the irony for a second; hardware helping save software. Sad, but true nonetheless. This isn’t to say Microsoft’s efforts won’t make a different for the holidays, because they will. But I believe their latest retail strategy will make a much bigger impact than they made with the improvements made in Windows 8.1.

Can Microsoft Compete in a Post-PC World?

Microsoft says it sold 100 million licenses for Windows 8 in the six months it was on sale. Not spectacular, but not bad either. But for Windows RT, Widows 8’s tablet-friendly little brother, things haven’t been so hot. Microsoft hasn’t given out numbers, but IDC estimates sales of Microsoft’s Surface RT at a bit over a million for October through March. It seems likely that combined sales of OEM RT products–all four of them–were even lower. By contrast, Apple is selling nearly 1.5 million iPads a week.

The failure of Windows RT–and it is getting very hard to call it anything else–leaves Microsoft in a terrible bind, as least a s a seller of consumer products. The post-PC era is upon us, not in the sense that traditional PCs are going way, but that they are no longer the center of the computing world, either in most people’s usage, in mindshare, or in sales. We’ve just entered this new era and it should be possible for a company with Microsoft’s resources to recover. But the first step in recovery is recognizing that you have a problem, and Microsoft doesn’t seem to quite be there yet. Consider Board Chairman Bill Gates’ comments on CNBC:

Windows 8 really  is revolutionary in that it takes the benefits of the tablet and the benefits of the PC and it’s able to support both of those. On Surface and Surface Pro, you have the portability of the tablet but the richness in terms of the keyboard and Microsoft Office…. A lot of [iPad] users are frustrated. They can’t type, they can’t create documents, they don’t have Office there. We’re providing them something with the benefits they’ve seen that have made that a big category without giving up the benefits of the PC.

In other words, what people want is more mobile versions of traditional PCs, and that’s what Microsoft is determined to give them. The problem is that this is a serious misreading of why customers are flocking to tablets. Mobility is, of course, an important attribute of the tablet. But so–and here is where Gates and Microsoft go wrong–simplicity. The iPad has limitations which users accept in exchange for wonderful simplicity and great ease of use. Tablets, and especially, the iPad, have the shallowest learning curve in the history of computing. Their software does not break. The process of updating their software is simple automatic. They don’t run Office but, while this may come as a surprise to Gates, many people do not see that as a disadvantage. They are, as my colleague Ben Bajarin would put it, a great example of “good enough” computing.

So what can Microsoft do about this? I have always thought the company made a strategic mistake when it decided to adapt desktop Windows to tablets rather than follow Apple’s lead by using an enhanced version of Windows Phone. It ended up compromising both the desktop and the tablet experience (based on the reports we’ve been hearing lately, such as this from ZDnet’s Mary Jo Foley, the upcoming “Blue” update to Windows is designed more to address Windows 8’s shortcomings as a desktop OS than to rescue Windows RT.[pullquote]I have always thought the company made a strategic mistake when it decided to adapt desktop Windows to tablets rather than follow Apple’s lead by using an enhanced version of Windows Phone.[/pullquote]

Windows 8/RT was a radical step for Microsoft, but in the end it just didn’t go far enough to succeed on tablets while perhaps going too far to win friends on the desktop. A true tablet OS simply would not have a Desktop mode that depends on a keyboard and mouse for usability, and Windows RT regularly requires going into Desktop for critical tasks (we can only hope that Blue will fix this.) The vaunted availability of Office is no advantage at all for most users because the Desktop Office apps simply don’t work well on a tablet. True touch versions of Office applications are reportedly in the works, but they are not expected before late 2014.

OEMs disappointed with Windows RT are building Windows 8 tablets. The most PC-like of these may succeed as sort of Ultra-ultrabooks, Windows 8 is fundamentally unsuited to a pure tablet. It requires too much process, too much battery power, too much storage, and too much keyboard. The same OEMs, even those most loyal to Microsoft, are also hedging their bets with Android.

That may well be too late. iOS 7, expected this fall, is likely to be a major enhancement of the iPad and we may see iOS 8 before the Windows tablet software upgrade is complete. Android tablet software still lags; the operating system has not made nearly as much progress on tablets as on phones. But Google and its partners will get it right sooner or later, and probably before Microsoft.

None of this means that Microsoft is going away. It’s back-end software powers most enterprise computing and its clients continue to have a vital place in business. For some business users, Gates might even be right about tablets: they need Office worse than they need the elegance and simplicty of an iPad. But with the mass of consumers, for whom a conventional PC is more likely to be a place where they store stuff rather than do stuff, Microsoft is in real trouble with no easy way out.