The launch Thursday of Windows 8.1 represents a different, changing Microsoft — one that eagerly pronounces how it’s responding to complaints and feedback from customers and attempts to move more quickly to address those critiques in its products.
Microsoft seems to be making more such overtures lately, reversing, for example, several policies it had initially put into place in the upcoming Xbox One after gamers grumbled.
Now, Windows 8.1 arrives with a host of new features that address some of the biggest problems users had with Windows 8, which itself offered a radically different user interface than previous versions of Windows because it was designed to be used on both touch devices and traditional mouse-and-keyboard PCs.
“This is arguably the version of Windows Microsoft would’ve liked to have shipped a year ago if it could have,” said Michael Silver, an analyst with research firm Gartner. “It addresses a lot of the complaints of folks who found it hard to find their ways around 8.0.”
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Most notably, for consumers, Windows 8.1 offers the return of a Start button (although clicking on the button returns the user to the tile-based Start screen, rather than pulling up the familiar pre-Windows 8 Start menu). It also gives users the ability to boot directly to desktop and a method of making less jarring the transition between the tile-based user interface and the traditional desktop.
Other features include a broader, more powerful search function that searches among a user’s apps, local files and cloud storage; the ability to have up to four app windows up at a time (depending on screen size); and an improved Mail app.
For corporations, Windows 8.1 offers new features, many relating to the “bring your own device” phenomenon in which employees want to do work on their own personal devices.
Notable features include: the ability for a business’ IT department to selectively delete certain things on a user’s device — for instance, a remote wipe of corporate apps while retaining the user’s personal photos, should the user lose the device. It also gives IT departments the ability to more finely control which corporate resources a device user has access to. Users can also sync data back and forth from their devices to user folders in the corporation’s data center.
Windows 8.1 also offers the ability to lock down a device to run one app only — for instance, a customer service application at a retail store.
“Microsoft is sending a really loud message out that they’re addressing the needs and concerns of business customers,” said Al Gillen, an analyst with research firm IDC. “This launch makes clear Microsoft is on a trajectory where they’re going to address the concerns of customers.”
What’s less clear is whether customers will respond.
Microsoft’s latest sales figures for Windows 8 date back to May, when the company said it had sold 100 million Windows 8 licenses — on par with how Windows 7 was selling in its life cycle.
But such numbers don’t really indicate how many people and corporations are using Windows 8, since many businesses downgraded their Windows 8 PCs to Windows 7, Gillen said.
That’s similar to what happened when the bug-prone Windows Vista debuted and businesses downgraded their PCs to Windows XP, he said.
Many businesses are still in the middle of upgrading their PCs from Windows XP — which Microsoft no longer will support after April 2014 — to Windows 7.
“We expect the majority of businesses are going to complete migration to Windows 7” rather than going to Windows 8, Gillen said.
Microsoft’s messages — that it’s listening to customers, that it’s trying to not just be a great tablet operating system but a system that combines the features and functionalities of both traditional PCs and tablets — will take a while to hit home, Gillen added.
Plus, Microsoft still faces tremendous challenges in making any dent in the tablet market, where it has only about a 4 percent market share.
Windows 8.1 is “a good all-around PC platform, and it can be used as a tablet ” said Silver, the Gartner analyst.
But “for folks looking for just a tablet, it’s a little less clear that they’ll understand” where the value lies, he said. “Will people accept this as a tablet OS? It’s not clear Microsoft has made this the cool thing to have yet.”
Windows 8.1 “shows that Microsoft can listen and can accelerate its release schedule,” said Al Hilwa, an IDC analyst.
“At the same time, the changes are not radical and the company continues to follow the same convergence model between sit-down computing and lean-back tablets,” Hilwa said.
There are advantages to that, if Microsoft can bring its broad Windows PC user base and ecosystem to its tablets. But there are also problems such as pricing the converged devices properly, given that tablets are generally less expensive than PCs.
“Microsoft has to begin to stabilize the PC as a software platform because a huge ecosystem of partners depend on its success,” Hilwa said.
Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @janettu.