Updates to Windows 8.1 are a Step Forward, Not a Retreat

Updates to Windows 8.1 are a Step Forward, Not a Retreat

Smiling yet?

One of the things that I think was lost amid all the news this past week at Build is that Microsoft's Windows course adjustment isn't a retreat from its touch-first focus for the future: the firm still believes that mobile computing combined with cloud services is the way forward. What's changed is that the firm now understands—and respects—that a huge percentage of its user base will still use Windows on traditional PCs. And it's now working to treat them like first class citizens too.

Folks, this is nothing but good news.

We can quibble over the details, the specific implementations. As I noted in What the Heck is Happening to Windows? a few months back, I am perhaps a bit too concerned about some of the specifics of how Microsoft is getting from here to there, in that there are currently some weird user experience inconsistencies. I care about this stuff, and I'm not going to apologize for that.

But as I later wrote in my Windows 8.1 Update 1 Review, it's also important to put this change in perspective: Update 1 is a step towards a future in which Windows will work better, and more naturally, on a wide variety of device types. And with the firm confirming my earlier report that it will add a Start menu and the ability to run Moderns apps in floating windows on the desktop, you can see what some of the next steps will be.

The way others have framed these changes is troublesome. You'd think that, given the poor reception Windows 8 received, anyone and everyone would simply cheer Microsoft's decision to actually listen to feedback and adapt the product accordingly. But I've seen headlines stating that the firm will be making Windows "more like Windows 7," is "removing the tiles from Windows 8," and "has finally admitted defeat."

Come on.

First, the overreaching strategy, as elegantly explained by new Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, is "mobile first, cloud first." But just as Apple has both iOS devices and Macs, and Google has both Android and Chrome OS, Microsoft must serve the same two markets: A mobile, touch-first, device-based market that will eventually represent the bigger volume, and the traditional PC user base that represents its current volume.

Both are important. But neither are going away. And that's one of the things I think people don't understand. No matter the actual SKU breakdown—and seriously, it really doesn't matter in the slightest—going forward, Windows will work on both "pure" mobile devices and traditional PCs—as well as "hybrid PC devices that sit somewhere in the middle.

As important, it will be made more efficient on each of these device types and will be customizable so it works like you want it to. Windows 8.1 Update 1 takes some steps towards making Windows 8.x more suitable for traditional PC users. The next update—Threshold, currently, though the new breed in charge of Windows is serious about speeding things up, so these changes could happen sooner—or set of updates will take those further steps. A Start menu. Floating Modern app windows.

So that's nice for traditional PC users. But these changes do nothing—absolutely nothing­—to change or diminish the experience of using Windows on a pure or hybrid touch device. On those systems, when you touch the screen, it will work just like you'd expect, and no desktop-style user experiences will get in the way. This is the best of both worlds. It is not a retreat.

In addition to sitting through the Build keynotes and gauging the reactions of press and attendees, I've now had a chance to meet (or in some cases catch up with) the people in charge of the new Windows. There is an excitement here, folks, I've not seen in years. It's like Narnia when the snow starts melting in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe": A feeling, a vibe, of positivity. They're going to do the right thing. You can tell.

I haven't felt this good about Windows in a long time. It's refreshing. Yes, I'm sure I'll have plenty to complain about, lots of changes I'd like to see, and some specifics I'll disagree with. That's inevitable. But from a high level, the clouds have dispersed and the sun is beaming down, and it's warm. Just enjoy it for now.

Note: I'm flying home from San Francisco today (Saturday), so I won't be able to moderate comments until tomorrow, sorry. --Paul

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