In our latest podcast (Episode 111), we brought up the recent rumors that Microsoft is going to completely change over their much hated Windows 8 interface and give people what they wanted. I pointed out that at the time of recording there had been only one single quote from Microsoft about “Project: Blue” at all, and that it was going to address some of the learning curve involved with Windows 8. I had hoped that since then, things would calm down – they’ve only gotten worse.
Earlier this week, Microsoft gave a new announcement about “Blue” and revealed the following tidbits:
- It is officially called Windows 8.1
- It will be free to existing Windows 8 owners
- A public beta will be available by the end of Summer 2013
Not exactly a huge amount of information there, I know, but it didn’t stop the pundits from going crazy with headlines like “Microsoft is finally going to do the right thing“! (Seriously, read that and tell me that’s not just troll bait!)
But despite all this rhetoric, there is one thing that is true; Microsoft is changing some things in Windows 8. To hopefully put the story straight (at least among our listeners) I present the following:
Why Windows 8.1 Isn’t What You Were Hoping For
To help settle this, I think it’s important that we first define what it was “you” were wanting (the Windows 8 haters). Top of the list we are constantly hearing would be complaints about the Start Screen, Metro Apps, and Charms. Basically the entire “Modern UI” overlay. There may be other things that people don’t like much, but I haven’t actually heard anyone come right out and say “It just boots up too fast!”
- The Start Screen Just Makes More Sense: Yes, I know that it seems like I’m trolling here too, but bear with me. Microsoft has been trying for years to get out from under their most successful UI element, the Start Menu. Windows Media Center, Windows Mobile, Windows Phone, and Windows CE have all had different ways to try and minimize the effect that having a Start Menu has and each of them have had varying results. Windows CE and Mobile both shared a funny cross between Windows 3.x and Windows 9x interface, but the result was that you hit the Start Button and the menu would fill the entire screen. Windows Media Center said ‘goodbye’ to the whole idea of a menu and gave you an entire screen (as it had to be readable and navigable from 10 feet away). Windows Phone made the whole screen a menu in a new way, and that was the way Microsoft decided to go with. The Modern/Metro UI is a final unification for all Windows Products, and they aren’t just going to drop it. To get the information they want out, have it be easily navigable, and consistent across any number of screen sizes means that the Start Screen is the best way to go.
- Too Much Money Has Already Been Spent: It’s an easily forgotten fact about businesses at work here: Investments need to pay off. So often people look at huge companies and say to themselves, “Yeah Apple/Microsoft/Adobe/Google, make the minimal effort and then just make as much money as possible off of me.” Well, yeah. Duh. You don’t go into business with the express intent of spending as much time as possible on something just so you can make no profit and close up shop. Well, maybe if you’re BlackBerry you do. A lot of work went into Microsoft’s latest OS, and changes that were far deeper than a simple UI design were made. They aren’t going simply reverse that because you spent 15 minutes at a BestBuy with a demo and didn’t like it. Especially when . . .
- It’s Selling Just Fine, Thank You: It doesn’t matter what the pundits say in the end, really, because the numbers just don’t match up with the picture they’re trying to paint. Despite all the graphs that talk about the death of the PC market, Windows 8 is selling just as well as Windows 7 did. If the PC market is dropping, it might be worth noting that it’s dropping at a constant level across all platforms (after all, why would OS X sales slump because people don’t like Windows 8?).
So What WILL Be In Windows 8.1?
Windows will be getting an upgrade to 8.1, so that means that something large is coming down the pipe. And while people are going crazy with the idea that the entire Start Screen will be done away with, it’s important to remember that 8.1 was planned months before Windows 8 even launched (indeed, we caught wind of Project Blue at about the same time we started hearing details about Windows 8 itself).
So 8.1 was a planned update. And one that will “address user feedback”. But what is there to fix with Windows 8 that isn’t the Start Screen? Well, if you even need to ask that, then it’s obvious you don’t actually use Windows 8!
- Wireless: The networking hub in Windows 8 is a vast improvement from Windows 7 and an unrecognizable change from the XP days. However it is not without faults; WiFi sometimes forgets to reconnect to networks it should know perfectly well, certain chipsets still have issues reconnecting after standby/hibernate, and for how fast the rest of the OS is the time it takes to connect to a network feels like forever. For an OS that’s supposed to bridge the gap between PC and tablet, we’re really lacking the tablet’s “Always Online” feel. What’s more, this is a relatively easy thing to fix. Oh, and users complained about it so it can be considered “user feedback”.
- Accounts: With Windows 8 you sign in using your Live account, which can be linked to your Facebook account, which used to be linked to your Google account, and maybe some other accounts. The account management area is a bit of a mess and you never know how a change on one platform might effect the computer itself (if someone messes with your Facebook pic on your phone, it can change your user pic on your PC at work). Furthermore, with Facebook protecting its data from everyone and Google trying to be the playground bully, it’s getting harder and harder to use this part of the OS.
- Windows Phone: This one actually causes me some rage. Windows Phone used to connect to a PC by way of the Zune software. It was lacking on some features and heavy on others you didn’t always want, but it worked and worked well. With Windows 8, Zune was dropped and replaced with . . . nothing. There’s a Windows Phone app for both desktop and Modern UI mode, and it sucks in either of them. As most Windows Phone users are learning, the best bet is to hook your phone up and use Windows Media Player instead. Yeah, that piece of software that hasn’t seen an update in almost four years. Oh, this one was a HUGE bit of user feedback.
- Games: Windows Vista introduced the idea of a games folder; an area where all installed games would show up with all their details from developers. Windows 7 continued it, but really didn’t change it much. Windows 8 ditched the idea entirely and gave us the Xbox app instead. Now, when you install a game the icon just adds itself to your Start Screen like anything else. Ironically, the new Modern UI would lend itself really well to the idea of a Games Hub. Click on the Games Hub, and a new menu comes up with all your games, much like the Music/Games/Office/anything on Windows Phone now. It should show you which games you have installed, developer information on them, your save games, and your current WEI (Windows Experience Index, an imperfect rating system that nevertheless many games use to see how well they’ll play). You could even tie in an area to show games that you might be interested in.
- Hints: Schmidty pointed out in our last episode that Windows 8 is admittedly lacking on hints or tool tips to help out people who might be lost. While the UI is designed to be easy to pick up and just use, the truth is that many people are simply too conditioned to make things more complex than they need to be. Windows 95 faced the same issue when it did away with the Program Manager and put everything into a Start Menu to begin with! The only difference was that then, there was a huge arrow that told you to click on the button and this time Microsoft just sort of assumed you knew how to use a computer by now.
- File Explorer in Modern UI: There is none. That needs to change. This was also the #1 bit of user feedback.
There are other issues in Windows 8, to be sure. Some of them are large and some are small. Some of them SEEM large, but to a very small population. And this is not to say that there is no possible way Microsoft will bring a Start Button back (though it’s very likely going to take you to the Start Screen again); I would like to just put out the argument that they’re probably more likely to address some actual issues that have been brought up by user feedback than it is to completely nuke the entire interface to their newest operating system despite it’s strong sales, just to please some “analysts” who are trying to generate page views.