Microsoft hopes for second chance with Windows 8.1

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As Microsoft’s Build 2013 developer conference kicks off this Wednesday, the company faces a daunting task: To convince developers and tech enthusiasts that it remains on the cutting edge. That’s a tough challenge when you’re about to release a Windows system update that most think exists to correct nagging flaws.

Indeed, it’s hard to make a Band-Aid look like a fresh innovation.

For many consumers, the Windows 8 Start page is a crazy quilt of incoherence that’s thrust in their faces as soon as their PCs boot. This will be resolved in a new boot-to-desktop feature, but Windows 8.1 still needs to address a laundry list of other issues, and Windows watchers worldwide remain skeptical. 

”I think the [Windows 8] updates have been noticed by the tech community,” said Frank Gillett, an analyst with Forrester Research. “But the mass market perception of Windows hasn’t changed that much.”

Exhibit A for the case to be made against Windows 8: the Start screen.

What should we expect from Build 2013? On June 26, Microsoft will provide its first preview of Windows 8.1, which should dominate discussion on the first day of the conference. On the second day, look for the conversation to turn to Visual Studio and other development initiatives.

That’s right: First and foremost, Build is a developer’s conference, and Microsoft must get software partners interested in platform support. “What I’m hoping for with Build is principally a more refined application development story with 8.1, and going out the broader ecosystem,” said Wes Miller, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft.

It all comes down to convincing developers that the new Windows ecosystem offers value—and return on investment. PCs, Surface tablets, and Windows Phone handsets represent the three legs of the hardware infrastructure, and they’re all tied together by Microsoft’s cloud of software and services.

A steep hill to climb

Microsoft offered the Windows 8 developer preview in September 2011, as the first hints arrived that the traditional PC market was in serious decline, and tablets and phones were gobbling up consumer dollars. Microsoft clearly saw our more mobile future, and attached a tablet interface to the front of the traditional Windows operating system. Then came Microsoft’s Surface tablet, released in October 2012. The hardware gets praise, but consumers can’t stomach its high price and lack of interesting software.

Since it shipped with the Surface Windows 8 Pro tablet last year, Windows 8 has been blamed for the demise of the traditional PC. The criticism was underscored by the decline in corporate licensing, as businesses hesitated to upgrade to an unfamiliar OS. Tami Reller, Microsoft’s Windows marketing chief, promises that things will improve in the latter part of the year.

In part, the optimism is pegged on Windows 8.1. Microsoft has promised a litany of improvements: a revamped Start menu; the capability for corporations to wipe corporate data off of Windows 8 business machines; and friendly features such as sharing backgrounds between the Start page and Desktop.

Windows 8: Is it really as bad as we think?

Microsoft made a big mistake in failing to realize that the vast majority of users would experience Windows 8 from a traditional PC, and not from a Surface or tablet-PC hybrid. From this perspective, the Start screen introduced in Windows 8 makes little sense.

But for tablet users, the Start interface works well. Users have been trained by their smartphones to instinctively reach for the new Windows screen, where large Live Tiles can be easily accessed. That said, Microsoft certainly alienated some users by organizing the tiles according to its own system—placing its key apps, such as People and Calendar, for example, in the first “screen” of the interface. Windows 7 and previous operating systems tended to show the most frequently used apps first, then an alphabetical list of programs when “All Programs” was clicked. This approach makes a comeback in Windows 8.1, and it’s a good thing.

Organized correctly, is this as useful as the Windows 7 Start menu?

Nonetheless, the upcoming “boot to Desktop” feature and the addition of the Start shortcut on the Desktop page contradict each other. Boot to desktop brings users to the familiar environment they know and love, but to do anything, they still need to return to the unfamiliar Start page. A number of third-party add-ons solve the problem, but Microsoft would have been better served by placing a Start option within the Desktop context.

Microsoft also still wastes space in its sprawling suite of Windows Store apps that take up way too much screen space. “Snapping” an app or two—or four, in Windows 8.1—may mitigate the problem, but it still looks inefficient, even if it makes sense from a user-interface perspective. And I still hate using the touch version of Internet Explorer. I’d much rather use the Desktop version or Google’s Chrome, instead.

It’s probably time to argue, however, that Windows 8 isn’t as bad as we think.

With just a couple of clicks, the Start screen can be banished, and the familiar Desktop can be brought back in play. I’ve used Windows 8 for months, and while I still don’t take advantage of all of its tricks and features, I do appreciate what Microsoft is doing under the hood. The problem is that we take some of new features for granted.

For example, setting up a third-party device just works—as it should, and as it always should have. The new OS also requires less memory than Windows 7, and the required disk storage should drop with Windows 8.1, as well. The bottom line? Windows 8 is a toned, stylish, polished professional athlete. But it’s wearing clown makeup, and that creates a serious image problem.

Under the hood, Microsoft’s Windows 8.1 works fine.

We need mobile apps—not many, but the biggies

Before a new product can sell, notes Directions on Microsoft’s Miller, it has to offer a compelling answer to a critical question: What can I do with this that I couldn’t do before? With Windows 8, “the story hasn’t been compelling,” Miller said. “There hasn’t been enough great experiences.” And those experiences need to emerge through apps.

The apps question flips the Desktop versus Start page argument on its head. People working on PCs instinctively visit the Facebook Web page. It works fine. We’re used to it. But Facebook formatted as an app or mobile Web page for iOS, Android, and (my favorite) Windows Phone looks far smoother than any Web page for the desktop.

Ignoring the fact that the share of Windows tablets is miniscule, Microsoft simply needs to commission a few key apps for Windows 8: Facebook, Yelp, and Pinterest, for starters. Pinning a Web shortcut to the Start menu is not the right solution.

And if Microsoft plans to usurp the iPad and the Chromebook in the education market, stronger partnerships with educational developers are essential. My Lenovo Twist has a Windows 8 Encyclopedia Britannica app that’s not bad, but we really need an iPad-quality app that Microsoft can put in front of educators (and consumers) as an example of the potential of the platform. If only Encarta were still around.

You might be able to argue that Foursquare, for example, belongs on Windows Phone, as it does. But as Forrester’s Gillett points out, we need to see a “continuously evolving and improving” apps story across the ecosystem.

Apps, apps, apps. And not just on Windows Phone, either.

”We need to see more of the operating system, but also more of the total Microsoft experience,” Gillett said. “Phones and Windows tablets is just part of that one continuous Microsoft experience.”

Build represents Microsoft’s second chance. Has the market passed it by? You could make the case that it has, but you can also argue that Microsoft still has wind in its sails. We’ll find out this week.

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