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The company on Thursday officially announced many of the changes in a blog post. And yes, they include the return of the Start button -- even if Microsoft's not calling it that. 8.1 will also include more boot options and Start screen customizations, built-in SkyDrive integration, and other updates. A full Windows 8.1 preview will be unveiled next month at Microsoft's developer conference.
[ What other tweaks has Microsoft made in Windows 8.1? Read Windows 8.1 Restores Start Button, With Twist. ]
The news should be at least partially reassuring to PC users who didn't love Windows 8 out of the gate, in part because it was a one-size-fits-all approach to a wide range of hardware -- much of which doesn't yet support touch. Windows 8 as currently constructed felt like over-compensation as Microsoft attempts to crack the consumer mobility market that Apple and Google have dominated to date. Microsoft's public commentary on the matter indicated as much. "Windows 8 redefines our market from PCs to mobile computing," read a recent blog post. This from the company whose software powers more than 90% of computers around the world.
The tune changed on Thursday, albeit slightly. Microsoft's sticking to its touch guns, but acknowledged that it's not currently optimal for plenty of users: "We also recognize there are many non-touch devices in use today -- especially in the commercial setting," corporate VP Antoine Leblond wrote on the Windows Blog. "As such we've focused on a number of improvements to ensure easier navigation for people using a mouse and keyboard."
You could argue that it shouldn't have taken this long for Microsoft to realize that. I say: Better late than never. Good on ya, Microsoft.
While we're here, can we give this "death of the PC" thing a rest? The PC is a commodity. Commodities, like toothpaste, aren't sexy; they're necessary. This doesn't make for a good growth story on Wall Street, nor a cool trend story on Madison Avenue. Tablets and tablet-like devices are new, they're shiny, and people are buying them. Lots of them. PCs have been around for forever and a day, and people -- consumers, in particular -- are buying fewer of them than they used to.
That doesn't mean millions of professionals no longer need full-featured, powerful desktops or laptops (aka notebooks) to do their jobs. Take anyone who relies heavily on computer-aided design (CAD) applications -- engineers, architects, designers, and the like. I've heard from several readers in these fields who've pointed out that heavy-duty CAD work just isn't suited for tablets or phones, at least not yet.
The same typically holds true in roles that require heavy content creation or data entry -- accountants, say, or writers. Does it mean these pros don't embrace mobility? Of course not -- many also tote tablets and certainly smartphones, too, especially in BYOD offices. And an increasing number of "traditional" PCs will no doubt include touchscreens. None of this means the PC is disappearing. (Video did not, in fact, kill the radio star.) PCs will remain necessary in many corporate environments, just as tablets and other devices will be increasingly important in certain jobs. There's room for both.
There's a common perception problem with necessities, though: They're usually kind of boring, unless maybe you're making million-dollar bets on the future price of oil or wheat. Social sites like Facebook are hot; toothpaste is not. But guess which one I'd give up first? (People who don't use toothpaste? Not often hot.)
Windows 8.1 ushers in a new Windows era of shorter, faster development-and-release cycles. In recent interviews with InformationWeek, Forrester senior analyst David Johnson pointed out that shift has a lot of upside for IT and businesses as a whole. Among the potential boons: Making it easier for organizations to stay current and reducing IT management burdens.
Of course, it has a downside, too. If Microsoft uses a more frequent release cycle as a means to chase the latest consumer trend or shareholder pressure -- rather than actually listening to customers and addressing their needs -- business users stand to lose. And there will always be something newer and cooler that gets consumers all riled up. Something will eventually usher in the "death of the tablet," too, even though tablets -- like the PCs that came before them -- probably aren't going anywhere.
No one should blame Microsoft for hunting the Almighty Consumer; it doesn't have much choice. It's just that the hunt shouldn't come at the expense of people who rely on computers to do their jobs. We don't really care if the new Angry Birds app is available; we do care whether our devices -- Microsoft's new word of choice -- are usable, productive tools for work.
This is a step in the right direction, an acknowledgement that tablets and desktops aren't the same thing, that people use technology for different reasons, and that the "world that blends our work and personal lives" may be more of a lifestyle issue than a computing problem. Microsoft appears to be using the first wave of the 8.x model as an opportunity to listen to what customers -- even us boring PC users -- actually want.
Thanks for that.