Can Windows 8.1 re-start Windows 8?

Summary:Ed Bott calls Microsoft's impending OS release an impressive update. Adrian Kingsley-Hughes thinks it's too little, too late.

Ed Bott

Ed Bott

Yes

or

No

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

Best Argument: Yes

58%
42%

Audience Favored: Yes (58%)

The moderator has delivered a final verdict.

Opening Statements

Windows 8.1 is one impressive update

Ed Bott: We are at the very beginning of a revolution in computing. It involves a profound transformation of the PC, which now include mobile devices and services that can be accessed from anywhere. In a few years, the idea that you’ll own just one PC will seem odd, and you’ll judge devices by how well they work together.

Windows 8 was the first step on that road, enabling a new app platform and a touch-based UI that extend the capabilities of the traditional PC to new form factors. With Windows 8.1, Microsoft will expand the capabilities of Windows dramatically, allowing it to work with a new class of smaller, cheaper devices that are powerful and portable but are still PCs. Windows 8.1 also dramatically improves the usability of the Windows 8 interface. It probably won’t satisfy the diehard haters, but anyone who’s actually used Windows 8 will want Windows 8.1.

The Windows 8.1 release is part of the new, faster update cadence Microsoft promised when it shipped Windows 8. The platform is intended to be around for at least a decade. If it continues to improve at this pace, it has every right to succeed.

 

Changes are too little, too late

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes: Microsoft tried to achieve something ambitious with Windows 8. It endeavored to create a platform that would work on both traditional desktop and notebook PCs, while at the same time kitting it out with features that would make it suited to touch-driven devices such as tablets and hybrids.

To do this, Microsoft gutted the operating system of some of the key elements that the average user had come to think of as being cornerstones of Windows -- specifically the Start button, the Start menu. It also relegated the Windows desktop into the background, instead choosing to land new users, blinking and confused, into what is essentially a full-screen Start menu called the Start Screen.

These changes, combined with the lack of proper user education about the changes from Microsoft, meant that the bulk of users were left scratching their heads, baffled as to what to do in this new thing called Windows 8.

The changes were quite sweeping, and it seems that Microsoft realized that the pendulum of change had swung too far, and as a result the developers squirreled away at Redmond HQ have been hard at work reversing some of these changes in an update called Windows 8.1. Specifically, the changes include adding back the Start button – but not the Start menu – and making tweaks to how the Modern UI apps work.

I firmly believe that all these changes are too little, too late. Microsoft chose to steer Windows in a particular course, and shoehorning tweaks and changes into an already cluttered and confused user interface doesn't seem like the way forward.

While Windows 8.1 might make people love Windows 8 a little more, it is highly unlikely that it will make people fall in love with the PC again.

The Rebuttal

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Are my debaters standing by?

    We have a lot of ground to cover and plan to start promptly at 11am ET.

    Welcome, readers: Once our debate kicks off, this page will refresh automatically each time a new question or answer is posted. Thanks for joining!

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Ready here


    Ed Bott

    I am for Yes

    This should be fun!


    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    OK, first question:

    Is the hype over the return of the Start button overblown in Windows 8.1?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Can we please stop talking about the Start button?

    I could probably list 20 important changes in Windows 8.1, and the return of the Start button would rank around 18 or 19 on that list. But critics and shallow analysts harp on it because 1) it’s the most obvious addition and 2) it’s something that casual users trip over when they encounter it for the first time.

    Every new interface requires that its users learn a few basic techniques. Adding the Start button makes it a bit easier for someone who is seeing Windows 8.1 for the first time to find the Start screen.

    That’s a good thing, but there are far more important changes in Windows 8.1, like ubiquitous search, the ability to sync the desktop across multiple devices, and support for smaller, cheaper tablets. That’s where the real payoff of Windows 8.1 will be apparent.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Yes

    Yes, for a number of reasons.

    • When the Windows 8 preview hit the web and users began to complain about the UI changes, Microsoft was adamant that it had science and telemetry on its side. If this is the case, then why the U-turn?
    • The UI changes were widely criticised by prominent usability experts, which called the new user interface a " a monster that terrorizes poor office workers and strangles their productivity ," "confusing," and " a cognitive burden " on users. Did Microsoft not know this already?
    • The update doesn't address the lack of killer apps for the platform.
    • The Start button that will be present in Windows 8.1 is really nothing like the old Start button, and doesn't bring up the familiar Start menu

    I think that the changes that Microsoft has made to how apps run are more important. 

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    What has Microsoft proven with its historically fast release of Windows 8.1?


    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    The trains now run on time in Redmond

    When Steven Sinofsky took over the Windows team seven years ago, it was a mess. What Microsoft did with Windows 7 was to prove that it could release a rock-solid update with no drama and no delays. It followed the same airtight schedule to release Windows 8, and note that no one has complained about the quality or stability of the underlying code in Windows 8.

    With Windows 8.1 in the home stretch now, Microsoft is about to prove that it can deliver the same quality at an annual clip instead of every three years. That means steady improvement and quick response to feedback.

    This isn’t a one-off, either. You can expect a similarly feature-rich Windows 8.2 update next year, and another update the year after that, and so on.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Yes

    That it can to a fast U-turn when needed.

    Seriously though, I'm not sure what this proves. While Microsoft seems keen to call this update "Windows 8.1," I'm not convinced that it is much more than as service pack and a few tweaks packaged into a rebranding effort.

    One of my main concerns about Windows 8.1 is that the backtracking and U-turns gives users – in particular enterprise users – little confidence in the longevity of changes made to Windows by Microsoft. This sort of tinkering with the UI generates user confusion, which in turn increases support costs and training.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Can that release schedule for Windows 8.1 encourage more people to take the plunge with the operating system?

     The thinking would be that if Microsoft doesn't shine out of the gate it will improve on the platform going forward.

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    I’ve been saying this from the start.

    The changes in Windows 8 (and now in Windows 8.1) are not just about making an OS that works great on tablets. They’re also about changing how Windows itself works. The native apps in Windows 8 are getting major updates for Windows 8.1. Services like SkyDrive and search, which have been integrated into the operating system, are being continuously refined and improved as well.

    Unlike with previous Windows versions, you don’t have to wait three years and hope the new software works on your hardware. Windows 8.1 is a free upgrade that will work on any PC that runs Windows 7 or Windows 8. Anyone who finds Windows 8 annoying is likely to be very pleased with the many changes in Windows 8.1 that go beyond the Start button.

     

    Ed Bott

    I am for Yes

    This is the old "service pack" thinking repacked as a more aggressive release schedule.

    If businesses didn't want to start thinking about a new version of Windows until the first service pack was put because it would bring with it tweaks and fixes, then nothing much has changed now.

     

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Is Windows 8.1 and its improvements enough to generate better sales of Microsoft powered tablets, laptops and hybrids?


    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    That’s up to Microsoft’s hardware engineers.

    By itself, Windows 8.1 and its improvements won’t make people more likely to buy one of the two existing Microsoft Surface devices. But Windows 8.1 represents a milestone of sorts for the entire Windows ecosystem. When it’s officially released later this year, consumers and businesses will have an extensive selection of new hardware devices and apps. I’m certain that will include multiple new devices under the Microsoft Surface brand.

    Personally, I’m looking forward to the prospect of a Microsoft-branded device that’s engineered with the attention to detail of the original Surface but is powered by one of Intel’s new Haswell or Bay Trail chips. I also expect we’ll see a 7- or 8-inch Surface RT tablet designed to be a great ebook reader that also runs Windows 8 apps. That type of device wouldn’t be possible without the changes in Windows 8.1.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Yes

    It depends.

    Are these changes based on feedback and telemetry from users, or a throw it at the wall and see what sticks" approach? Microsoft tried to silence the Windows 8 critics early on by assuring them that the changes were supported by testing and science. If that's the case, what changed?

    The way I see it, there's not an awful lot of interest in touch hardware such as notebooks and hybrids from either consumers or enterprise. Touch is a solution looking for a problem to solve, and at present buyers are scratching their heads trying to figure out what that problem is.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    What's the role of hardware selection and form factors in restarting Windows 8 demand?


    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Hardware is one of the three crucial factors.

    People act like Windows is an island unto itself, but it can’t exist without hardware and apps. And as much as we might like for an ecosystem to be fully developed on Day 1, we all know that’s not the way things work.

    The whole point of Windows 8 is that it works across a wide range of devices, from conventional PCs to hybrids to touch-enabled laptops to tablets. Windows 8 supported only devices with screens that measured at least 10 inches diagonally and had a PC-like resolution. Windows 8.1 broadens hardware support to include smaller devices, at different resolutions and alternative aspect ratios. They’re still capable of acting like PCs when the need arises, but first and foremost they are extremely capable tablets. With new hardware and new apps, Windows 8.1 really makes more sense.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Yes

    Windows 8 was meant to ignite a touch revolution.

    Problem is, there was never a proven demand or market for touch-enabled Windows devices. The primary platforms that Windows 8 is being run on is desktop and notebook systems. Even if  touchscreens end up on a quarter of notebooks by 2016 , then touch is still very much a niche feature.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Does Windows 8.1 reflect that mistakes were made with Windows 8...?

     ...or was this the plan the whole time?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Both, of course.

    Long before the release of Windows 8, Microsoft publicly announced its intent to switch to a faster update cadence for Windows. If you look past the Start button at the full feature set in Windows 8.1, you can see many new features that were clearly planned long ago but couldn’t be completed in time for the initial release of Windows 8. The Metro-style PC Settings pane in Windows 8, for example, included only the most minimal subset of features. In Windows 8.1 it’s complete, which means you can change your system configuration without visiting the desktop.

    Of course, some features in Windows 8.1 are obvious responses to mistakes in the initial release. The Start button should have been on the taskbar all along. And the ability of Windows 8.1 to run on smaller devices fixes a miscalculation that the Windows team made when they focused only on 10-inch tablets initially.

     

    Ed Bott

    I am for Yes

    If this was the plan all along, then I weep for the management involved.

    I think that the changes that are being built into 8.1 are a mea culpa of sorts, an olive branch to those to felt that the pendulum of change has swung too far.

    Problem is, many of these changes, especially adding back the Start button but not the Start menu, are little more than cosmetic – lipstick on a pig to use the old rhetorical expression.

     

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    What are the three most user grabbing features with Windows 8.1?


    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Everyone’s different...

    The change I think will have the most impact is the ability to sign in to a new device and see your preferred desktop layout, with your favorite apps installed and configured and tiles laid out exactly the way you want. With Windows 8 you have to redo all that each time you set up a new device.

    Automatic synchronization between the local file system and SkyDrive is also going to be huge. You’ve got 7 GB of free backup space that just works, and you can bump it up to 100 GB and have access to any of your files, anywhere, anytime. It’ll even work on Windows RT.

    Finally, the ability to arrange Metro-style app windows side by side, in flexible sizes, eliminates one of the most common objections people have to Windows 8. The thin snapped pane is no longer the only option.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Yes

    Here are my top three:

    • New snap behaviors for Modern UI apps – this will make using them a LOT easier.
    • Boot to desktop – For me, this will mean I have to click a little less.
    • Automatic updating of apps -- Both a timesaver and helps make Windows 8 saver.

    A controversial change is the way that Microsoft has changed Libraries. These have now been pushed into the background, which will please those who never use them, but will undoubtedly annoy users who found them useful.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    What should Microsoft's message be to users who avoided Windows 8 now that 8.1 has launched?


    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    “We heard you.”

    Even more important is getting touch-enabled devices into people’s hands, in displays where they have a fair chance to try Windows 8.1 for themselves and “get it.”

    I don’t have a lot of faith in the ability of most of Microsoft’s retail partners to do that, unfortunately.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Yes

    To be honest, I'm not sure.

    The problem is that some people like Windows 8, and others hate it, and striking a compromise between these two camps is going to be tricky. Thrown in heaps of upgrade fatigue from enterprise users who have been busy erasing al traces of Windows XP from their networks, and I think that it's hard to get a single message out there that will appeal to all.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Does Windows 8.1 do anything to drive enterprise interest?


    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Enterprises work on a different timeline.

    I’ve written about this many times before. (Here, here , here, here, and here, for example.) Enterprises are conservative. That’s why many of them are still tempting fate and running Windows XP less than a year before it’s officially unsupported. They might try out Windows 8 on a few PCs, but most will ignore it unless their users bring in their own devices.

    People forget, but Windows XP was as much of a “failure” in its first year as Windows 8 has been so far. Back in December 2003, more than two years after XP was released, one survey of 670 large companies found it was only in use on 6.6 percent of those PCs.

    There are a large number of features in Windows 8.1 that will be ready for bleeding-edge enterprises when Windows 8.2 rolls around next year.

    Meanwhile, Windows 7 will thrive. 

    Ed Bott

    I am for Yes

    The sync with SkyDrive...

    ... will no doubt be interesting to some in the enterprise circles. That said, it's a safe bet that enterprise users will be more than happy with Windows 7.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    How to measure success?

    Given PC sales are in the doldrums and projected to be for the foreseeable future, how should we gauge the success of Windows 8.1? After all, it's a free update.

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    It’s just Windows 8.

    The whole promise of Windows 8 is that it gets better over time thanks to updates like this and an expanding selection of apps. Although it’s technically possible to stick with the original Windows 8 version, I can’t imagine that strategy would make sense for anyone.

    The fact that this is being delivered through the Windows Store rather than through Windows Update is a big deal. This isn’t a service pack. It isn’t something that’s going to break existing apps or mess with the underpinnings of the Windows networking stack or file system.

    In short, I expect it to see wide adoption in very short order.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Yes

    Best metrics

    I think one of the best metrics to gauge success will be watching how rapidly Windows 8.x replaces older versions, especially Windows 7.

    Looking further, I would also be keeping an eye on what happens down the line with Windows 9. Will that still have focus on touch and apps, or will Microsoft do further U-turns.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    OK, gentlemen: Final question

    What do you expect Microsoft's future release schedules to look like post Windows 8.1?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Same time next year...

    I expect annual updates just like this one: Windows 8.2 next year, 8.3 the year after that, and so on. At some point, if the internals call for it, we might see Windows 9. But that’s not a guarantee.

    Welcome to the New World of Windows.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Yes

    This is a big question mark.

    There's plenty of chatter that Microsoft is thinking about taking Windows in the yearly subscription direction – like Adobe has done with its Creative Suite of applications – and abandoning service packs in favor of regular branded updates could be seen as a precursor to this. 

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Thanks Ed and Adrian for a spirited debate...

    ...and readers -- thanks as always for joining in. The debaters will post their closing arguments on Wednesday, and I will deliver my final verdict here on Thursday. Check back with us then.

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

Closing Statements

It’s so much more than the Start button

Ed Bott

If you think Windows 8.1 is just “a service pack and a few tweaks packaged into a rebranding effort,” you’re not paying attention.

The market for conventional desktop and portable PCs is shrinking quickly. Demand for tablets, on the other hand, is growing at a startling pace. The real impact of Windows 8.1 is on those tablets and other mobile devices, including many we haven’t seen before. Changes in resolution requirements enable an entire new class of smaller, less expensive devices.

Migrating all Windows settings to run in the new UI is a huge undertaking that removes a major Windows 8 annoyance. Using Windows 8.1 on a tablet, you’ll never have to visit the desktop and squint to change device settings.

This fall, we’ll see a massive wave of new, touch-enabled devices. When you look closely at those devices, you’ll understand why I say Windows 8.1 is much more than a Start button.

Give users what they want

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

Windows 8.1 is coming, and with it will come a handful of UI changes that Microsoft hope will be enough to silence the critics.

A small number of these changes – such as the way Modern apps work – will be of benefit to users, while other changes – such as bolting a part-functional Start button back onto the OS – will do little other than throw more confusion and change at users who are already suffering a decline in productivity thanks to the changes made in Windows 8.

The U-turn that Microsoft is making with Windows 8.1 in adding the Start button back will do little for either existing user, or to encourage more people to take up the platform. The way to reignite Windows is to give users what they want, not force changes on them they never asked for in the first place.

Restart doesn't necessarily mean success down the road

Lawrence Dignan

The question for this debate revolved around whether Windows 8.1 could restart Microsoft's flagship OS. Ed made the case that a restart was likely. However, a restart doesn't necessarily mean that Windows 8 will succeed over time. The UI, hardware and the post-PC era will have a lot of say in Windows 8's success. Adrian made many valid points. But given the narrow scope of the question, Ed, and the crowd vote, gets the win.

Topics: Great Debate

About

Larry Dignan is Editor in Chief of ZDNet and SmartPlanet as well as Editorial Director of ZDNet's sister site TechRepublic. He was most recently Executive Editor of News and Blogs at ZDNet. Prior to that he was executive news editor at eWeek and news editor at Baseline. He also served as the East Coast news editor and finance editor at CN... Full Bio

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