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Microsoft has been busy lately defending Window 8's honor, and for good reason. The din of user gripes, focused mostly on the new operating system's tile-oriented Modern interface, hasn't lessened much since Windows 8 launched last October. Industry analysts have dumped on the new OS too, claiming it bears some of the blame for weak PC sales worldwide.
But is Windows 8 really so bad? This won't come as a surprise, but Microsoft thinks it's pretty good, if you'll just give it a chance. The company recently confirmed that its Windows 8 update, code-named "Windows Blue," is slated for release later this year. A public preview of Windows Blue will debut at the Microsoft Build Developer Conference in San Francisco at the end of June.
Redmond is a bit less forthcoming about Windows Blue's new and updated features, which is the subject of the slideshow that follows. So what can we expect? "[Blue is] an opportunity for us to respond to the customer feedback that we've been closely listening to since the launch of Windows 8 and Windows RT," said Tami Reller, chief marketing and financial officer of the Windows division, in a May 7th Q&A session with Microsoft's Brandon LeBlanc. Well, perhaps "feedback" is a friendly word for "grievances."
Whatever the case, we'll find out in a few weeks just how responsive Microsoft is to Windows 8's critics.
Microsoft claims it has sold more than 100 million licenses for Windows 8, up from 60 million in January, and that there are now more than 2,400 certified Windows 8- and Windows RT-certified devices. And Windows 8's acceptance in the marketplace, in terms of license sales, is on par with that of Windows 7 after its debut, the company says. But as InformationWeek associate editor Michael Endler makes clear, there are many more PCs in the world today than when Windows 7 arrived at the end of 2009. To match its predecessor's market share growth, Windows 8 would need to sell significantly more licenses than Windows 7.
So is Windows doomed? Hardly. Even with the anti-Windows 8 uproar, there's no indication that enterprises are ditching the Windows platform. However, given that many businesses are still in the process of upgrading to Windows 7, there's a good chance they may bypass Windows 8 -- and perhaps even Windows Blue -- altogether and hold out for Windows 9. Consumers, however, may find iPads and Android tablets tempting alternatives to Windows-based laptops and tablets, and that has Microsoft worried.
Here are 8 things that Microsoft might fix in Windows Blue.
Rumor has it that Microsoft may bring back the Start menu -- or is it the Start button? -- to the Desktop UI in Windows 8. The distinction between "Menu" and "Button" may seem pedantic, but it matters a lot. Modern UI haters, particularly those unhappy with Windows 8's half-based desktop, would prefer the return of a Windows 7-style Start menu for easy access to folders, programs, settings, not to mention the venerable search box (above) for finding files. (The Start button, which is also missing from Windows 8, refers to the Windows icon in the lower right corner of Windows 7 and its antecedents.)
If the Start menu returns to Windows Blue, wonderful. But if it gets only the Start button, which doesn't launch the Start menu but rather directs users back to the Modern UI -- as some reports say it will -- Microsoft will have missed a golden opportunity to appease its Windows 8 critics -- well, some of them, anyway.
Windows 8 comes with plenty of free apps, and you'll find plenty more in the Windows Store. Unfortunately, many Windows 8 users have found that these apps have limited functionality compared to the desktop programs they've used for years. Skype users, for instance, have griped about the confusing interface and lack of features of the Modern UI version of the Microsoft-owned VoIP app. And Window 8/RT's Calendar, Mail and People apps have taken their licks for being underpowered and oversimplified. And while that's fine for mobile apps, PC users want more. To be fair, Microsoft recently beefed up the capabilities of these three apps, but their initial shortcomings show the complexity of developing a single UI and set of apps for mobile and desktop users.
Why does Windows 8 come with two versions of Internet Explorer, both of which are named Internet Explorer 10? Well, probably because Windows Store apps don't run on the Windows desktop, at least not without a third-party utility making it happen. As a result, the Modern UI gets its own Metro-style, touch-optimized, full-screen version of IE, while the desktop gets a traditional version designed for mouse/keyboard use.
Confused yet? There's more. Add-ons that work in desktop IE, such as browser extensions and toolbars, don't work in the touch-friendly Modern version. And tabs work differently in the two versions too. Oh, and if you select another program, such as Google Chrome, as your default browser in Windows 8, you'll see only the desktop version of IE 10. Yikes! Perhaps this all made sense in the early planning stages of Windows 8 (after a few beers), but from a usability perspective, it's a train wreck. Windows Blue is a good opportunity to set things straight.
Modern UI-style apps, by default, take up the entire screen. This makes sense on a diminutive tablet display, but it's a waste of valuable screen space on a 15-inch (or larger) desktop/laptop display. Think about it: Do you really need a full-screen weather app? There are ways in the Modern UI to position two windows side by side, but they're clumsy and not very intuitive. And if you want to run a Modern-style app in a desktop window, you'll need a third-party utility like Stardock's ModernMix to make it happen. Hopefully Windows Blue will make it easier to resize and move Modern apps around the screen, and perhaps even let us move them on the desktop.
Window 8's Charms bar, which slides in and out of view along the right side of the screen, provides fast access to essential tools such as search, share and settings. It's not very flexible, though. You can't disable it, for instance, or move it to another screen location that works better for you, such as the left side. How about a bit more flexibility in how we use Charms, Windows Blue?
The Modern UI has a pop-up clock that appears with the Charms bar, but at the opposite end (lower left corner) of the screen. For a permanent clock tile, however, you'll need to download a third-party app like the free Jojuba Software Clock. Windows Blue should add a live tile that shows the time and date without any swiping, hovering or tapping. A clock is one of those basic UI elements that you don't miss until it's gone. (Sniff.)
Let's say that Microsoft is having a hard time selling Windows 8 to enterprises, many of which don't want the headaches and expense of retaining their employees to learn the Modern UI. To make Windows Blue more appealing to its sizable corporate user base, Microsoft could make its slick, tile-based interface optional, thereby simplifying the upgrade path for many organizations.
There are several reasons why this is unlikely, however -- including the fact that Windows 7 remains a popular choice among enterprises, many of which are in the process of migrating to the OS. And if you've just migrated to Windows 7, you're not even considering Windows 8 -- Modern UI or not. Furthermore, the Modern UI is the cornerstone of Microsoft's (perhaps misguided) strategy of providing a single UI for its desktop and mobile products. Bottom line: If you make the Modern UI optional on your flagship OS, you're messing with your grand plan for mobile/desktop domination.
Windows Blue, like its predecessor, may very well strive to be all things to all people -- and perhaps more so. Microsoft's Tami Reller, chief marketing officer and chief financial officer of the Windows division, boasts that Blue "will deliver the latest new innovations across an increasingly broad array of form factors of all sizes, display, battery life and performance."
Well, a "broad array of form factors" sure sounds like a nod to the rumored 7- or 8-inch Windows tablets that are expected soon. And a new generation of hybrid Windows 8 slates and other devices are starting to appear.
Intel CEO Paul Otellini recently said his company's new line of Atom mobile processors could power Windows 8 tablets priced as low as $200, an entry-level market that Microsoft needs to enter for its mobile strategy to succeed.