If you could synthesize a year's worth of mixed reviews into just a few words, Windows 8 would probably boil down to these three: confusing, contradictory, and unfinished.
Today, almost exactly one year after shipping Windows 8, Microsoft released its successor. Windows 8.1 (a free update for Windows 8 users) now has the formidable challenge of rehabilitating its predecessor's tarnished image and convincing consumers and businesses that new Windows-powered hardware is a smart choice.
I've spent the past several months using the Windows 8.1 Preview and the final shipping code on a variety of devices: traditional desktop and notebook PCs, all-in-ones with touchscreens, and tablets and touch-enabled devices in many shapes and sizes.
Last week, as I was preparing to write this article, I rolled back a few of those machines to their original installation, and returned to Windows 8 for a few days. That experience was enough to confirm for me that the changes in Windows 8.1 are substantial and go a long way toward overcoming the objections that early adopters had to Windows 8.
The new features, new apps, and refinements in Windows 8.1 probably won't be enough to win over the diehard haters. If you think the Windows 8 design style was a sharp turn in the wrong direction, you should probably stop reading right now. But for anyone who thought Windows 8 was basically a good idea, poorly executed, Windows 8.1 is worth a serious look.
Windows 8.1 has the advantage of arriving in a far more welcoming ecosystem than its predecessor faced. When Windows 8 launched, most of the new touchscreen devices it was designed for were still on the drawing board. Those that were available for sale were typically priced too high. Today, there's a very broad selection of aggressively priced touchscreen notebooks, tablets, and all-in-ones from just about every PC OEM.
Today's public release—General Availability, or GA, in MicroSpeak—doesn't contain too many surprises. Most of the new features were already in the Windows 8.1 Preview, which has been publicly available for more than three months. A few extra features made their debut in the RTM code, which has been available for MSDN and TechNet subscribers and for Volume License customers since early September. (For details of the Preview release, see Hands-on with the Windows 8.1 preview. For an overview of what's in RTM, see Windows 8.1 RTM: What's new, what's next? and the accompanying gallery, What's changed in the Windows 8.1 RTM release?)
The real story today is the widespread availability of the update, which should roll out to every Windows 8 PC over the next 30 days or so. Along with that wide release, Microsoft is lighting up back-end services, including some improvements in the Windows Store and some additions to the new apps it's shipping with Windows 8.1.
In day-to-day use, Windows 8.1 feels far more refined than Windows 8. Most (but not all) of the rough edges of Windows 8 have been smoothed out. The unfinished bits are, for the most part, complete. Some (but not all) of the controversial decisions Microsoft made with Windows 8 have been reversed, most notably the decision to ditch the Start button and ship with no online tutorial to help new users get over that disorienting feeling.
In reality, though, the return of the Start button is only one small part of a much larger story. The design goals for Windows 8.1 are pretty much a case study in objection handling.
Consider these all-too-common Windows 8 objections.
The Windows 8 user experience is confusing, especially on non-touch hardware.
Windows 8.1's most obvious response to this objection is the return of the Start button, which restores a familiar element to the desktop. You'll also find a tutorial on the Start screen as well as some tips that appear at startup when you sign in with a new account for the first time.
In Windows 8.1 the Start screen gets a major redesign to make it easier to customize, with a wider range of tile sizes to accommodate more items on the Start screen. And of course there's a check box that lets you bypass the Start screen and go straight to the desktop.
What you won't find is a Start menu, at least not from Microsoft, which stuck to its guns and left that field open for third-party developers.
The transition between the new and old Windows experience is jarring.
One of the biggest unfinished pieces of Windows 8 was the PC Settings app, which covered a handful of high-profile settings but required a visit to the desktop Control Panel for most configuration tasks. In Windows 8.1 the list of options available in the touch-friendly PC Settings list is far more complete.
The result is you can usually choose which interface you want to use. On a PC where you have a full keyboard and a mouse or trackpad, you can use the desktop Control Panel. On a tablet or other touchscreen device, you can use the PC Settings option. The latter is often cleaner and easier to work with, even on a conventional PC, as this example shows.
There aren't enough apps.
You can't convince developers to build apps for a platform that isn't shipping, which explains why Microsoft had to ship Windows 8 with a weak assortment of third-party apps and then wait for developers to catch up.
They made the problem worse by shipping a weak collection of built-in apps, with Mail and Music especially egregious examples.
After a year of development, the third-party selection is much better, although still weak compared to the iPad's rich selection. But with Windows 8.1 the built-in apps are now of uniformly high quality. The Mail app, for example, is full-featured, with IMAP support and the ability to drag messages into folders. Both the Music and Video apps are greatly improved, and although they have strong hooks to the Xbox services they work well enough as standalone products.
And a slew of high-profile third-party apps are slated to ship around the same time as Windows 8.1. The long-awaited Facebook app, for example, arrived in the Windows Store a few hours ahead of the official Windows 8.1 launch. You'll see it prominently featured on the Start screen after an upgrade, now that the Windows Store includes support for live tiles.
What's in it for the enterprise?
Most of the early development efforts for Windows 8 focused on consumer devices. That's not surprising, because consumers tend to lead the market whereas enterprise customers are notoriously slow to change. But there are some interesting new enterprise features baked into Windows 8.1. The list includes a new feature called Workplace Join that allows personal devices (tablets and PCs) to be registered on a Windows Server 2012 network.
And the security story is also encouraging. Widespread adoption of UEFI and Secure Boot basically puts all current rootkits out of business, and it's hard to see how malware writers can work around that protection. Similarly, there's now fully integrated support for fingerprint logins. Windows has supported this technology for several versions, but Windows 8.1 adds a consistent user interface. The biometric technology is also reportedly more sophisticated than what Apple released with the iPhone 5S; we'll see if hackers are able to break into Windows 8.1 using a plastic copy of a fingerprint.
In fact, there's plenty of new stuff in Windows 8.1 that should be of interest to IT pros, enough material for me to write a 140-page ebook on the topic. If your job responsibilities include corporate network management, deployment, or BYOD management, you should take a look at Introducing Windows 8.1 for IT Professionals. (It's a free download in PDF format.)
Ultimately, though, Windows 8.1 will rise or fall on the strength of Microsoft's OEM partners. Intel's latest processors, 4th Generation Core (Haswell) and Atom (Bay Trail) offer dramatically better battery life than their predecessors, which is essential for mobile devices. Dell, Toshiba, and Lenovo are all shipping good-looking 7- and 8-inch Windows 8.1 tablets this fall, and Acer is about to release the Iconia W4, an 8.1-inch tablet thathas a much better CPU and screen than its weak first entry, the W3-810. And of course, Microsoft has refreshed versions of its Surface hardware coming out next week.
For anyone already running Windows 8, the update to Windows 8.1 is a must-have. The big question is whether new hardware and a spiffed-up Windows 8 can win over consumers and businesses.