With Windows 8.1, can Microsoft get its mojo back?

With Windows 8.1, can Microsoft get its mojo back?

Summary: Microsoft has something to prove with Windows 8.1 and some very important questions to answer. Can the company turn around a slow PC market, convince consumers it's cool, and pry businesses away from Windows 7?

SHARE:
TOPICS: Windows 8, Microsoft, PCs
190

By any objective standard, the initial response to Windows 8 has been a mixed bag for Microsoft.

The Redmond giant has had to watch for the past eight months as the PC market it dominated for decades first sputtered and then stalled. It’s also had to listen to customers complain, sometimes vehemently, about the usability challenges of Windows 8.

And a good share of the blame for both situations can be traced right back to design decisions made several years ago by Microsoft executives in the early planning stages of what became Windows 8. They misjudged the hardware market, designing Windows 8 for 10-inch and up tablets and touch-based laptops, hitting the market as consumers discovered the joys of smaller devices. They overestimated their customers’ willingness to move beyond the desktop to a world where touchscreens rule. It didn’t help that the first wave of Windows 8 devices didn’t even have touch capabilities and that Windows 8 did almost nothing to help introduce customers to its radical new interface.

startbuttonthinner
Windows 8.1 features the return of the Start button and menu. Credit: Microsoft

 

Many of the changes in Windows 8.1 were already on the drawing board when Windows 8 shipped last fall. But the just-released Windows 8.1 Preview no doubt includes a few exclamation points and a greater sense of urgency than the original plans. Microsoft has something to prove with this update.

After spending the day at the Build conference talking with developers and Microsoft managers (and poking at Windows 8.1 on a loaner Surface Pro in between meetings), I’ve come up with three key questions that Windows 8.1 has to answer:

Will consumers buy Microsoft tablets and touch-based hybrids?

As I noted a few weeks ago, a major goal of this release is to enable Windows 8 on small mobile devices. It’s no accident that the first device Windows boss Julie Larson-Green showed off at yesterday’s Build keynote was an 8.1-inch Acer tablet designed to be used in portrait mode. It looks like a pretty decent device for reading ebooks and online magazines, browsing the web and playing casual games, with the ability to transform into an honest-to-goodness PC on a moment’s notice.

The trouble is, the market is flooded with attractive alternatives: dirt-cheap Android devices, Amazon’s well-established Kindle Fire and the undisputed heavyweight champion of the space, Apple’s iPad and iPad Mini. It’s a rapidly growing segment, but Microsoft will have its hands full convincing consumers that Windows, with its long history as a PC operating system, can really deliver a pleasant tablet experience.

Will businesses commit to a future where the Windows desktop is perceived as a legacy product?

It’s a misconception to think that the traditional Windows desktop is a second-class citizen in Windows 8. Although the Start menu is gone, the Windows desktop is otherwise virtually unchanged, and all those legacy apps run as well as ever on Windows 8 — maybe even better than before.

But perception is everything, which is why Windows 8.1 has a Start button, a boot-to-desktop option and a set of options that can basically turn Windows 8 into… well, let’s call it Windows 7.5. If Microsoft had delivered this set of features last October, along with an easy set of tools for easing the transition for Windows desktop diehards, the outcry over the radical Windows 8 interface changes might have been less intense. But they didn’t, and now the risk is that businesses will stick with Windows 7 on traditional (non-touch) PCs and shun the innovations in hardware that should hit the market this fall.

That’s a recipe for a slow decline into a boring (but still probably profitable) niche.

Will developers deliver the apps to kickstart the new platform?

So far, the most successful app developers for Windows 8 are those making Start menu replacements. Ouch.

Microsoft didn’t help its own case by delivering weak Mail and Photos apps — the two categories that are arguably the most important parts of the modern mobile computing experience. And although the company demonstrated a very good-looking Mail update at yesterday’s keynote, that code isn’t in the Windows 8.1 Preview.

The real killer apps for Windows 8, the ones that will convince other developers to come along for the ride, are the Windows 8 versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and the rest of the Office family. And Microsoft’s still saying those apps won’t arrive until 2014. Really? That’s an awfully long time to wait.

So those are the very big challenges that Windows 8.1 faces. Place your bets.

Topics: Windows 8, Microsoft, PCs

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

190 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Bingo

    +1.
    Ram U
  • A very succinct analysis

    I think this time, Microsoft has fused what they've heard from customers with what they want to do strategically, in a pretty delicate balancing act. They've done what I'm sure they feel is their best, and it will be up to customers now to sort it out.
    Mac_PC_FenceSitter
  • Microsoft sounds

    like its ready to listen, but I'm afraid it has boxed itself into a corner with an unpopular interface, while angering developers (again, with an unpopular interface).
    roteague
  • mojo???? rofl

    microsoft never had a mojo

    actually, they could be best described as being anti-mojo all the time
    ljenux
    • Never Any Mojo?

      Well, with over 1.3 billion installs worldwide I think it's safe to say MSFT has had plenty of "mojo" in the past.
      tbsteph9
      • Amount of sales =/= Mojo.

        For example Exxon sells a lot but it is not a mojo company.
        magallanes
        • what are you? 16 yr old troll?

          Here's some history lesson for you that happened before you were born....

          Windows 95 still is the most successful product launch ever. Windows 2000 penetration into the server market is the most violent destruction of market share of all existing players like Sun and HP. Office products in the 90's decimated competitors into oblivion... of course I can go on about how MS had unparalleled success, but I made my point already.

          Up until 2003 (I wanna say), MS could do nothing wrong. And then, they lost the thread and probably went downhill from there and had to do catch up since 2010 because of enormous negative rep they garnered with the younger generation I believe.

          Anyway, I installed 8.1 y'day, it's a step in the right direction. But, don't think they can get their mojo back fully until they fire Steve Ballmer and get a young and dynamic CEO up top..
          msunda
          • Windows success

            is due to the business and marketing savvy of Microsoft, not due to the merit of the OS itself. Most of the time it has been behind the curve of innovation. Just like now, when they're trying to make Windows 8 appeal to the Mac crowd.

            "I don't wanna USE my computer, I want my computer to compute FOR me..."
            hiraghm
          • msunda, I agree with magallanes and I'm 57

            I lived through the MS hayday you speak of, and MSFT did make plenty of mistakes back then too ... Pick your poison (Windows 2, Windows 3.01, Windows ME, Windows Media Center Edition, Windows Vista, etc...) They did some good stuff too (95, XP), but there were really no competing products to speak of.

            Now there are very good solid choices (Linux, Android, OSX/iOS, BSD to name a few), so when MSFT screws up, people have choices and choices = power. MSFT hates that.

            But pure and simple, they missed the handset market all together! Now they are about to miss the PC market by trying to use a tablet interface on it. That sure has made them listen.

            Their negative rep came from two places ... never listening enough and being a bully.
            padapa
          • You forgetting Windows ME?

            MSFT started blundering earlier than 2003.
            Greenknight_z
          • If they want their mojo back...

            Get rid of Ballmer. When MS does something new, or proposes something new, the need user gets angry. (no start menu, 360 rumors)

            It seems they enjoy persuading others to new vendors.

            He is Apple's favorite CEO.
            kitekrazy
      • WIn 9!

        But did consumers ever really have a choice?
        Windows in those days were the "model-T" of computers, there was basically no other real viable choice.
        If Microsoft came out today with anything new (and they have tried)... they usually fail.
        Having said that, I do love Windows 7 and I intend to use it until MS gets their act together for Win 9.
        Ravi100
        • Huh? What about the Mac?

          When Windows was released, it wasn't immediately obvious that it was going to dominate the Macintosh. Microsoft's openness (just about any OEM could produce could produce a Windows PC and just about any developer could write code that could run on all Windows PCs) compared to Apple's insistance on control was probably the main reason Windows ended up trouncing the Mac (well, that and the ability to run Lotus 1-2-3 in a DOS window back when that seemed important).
          Flydog57
          • This has nothing to do with Microsoft

            The OEM concept where different parties do different part of the system was designed by IBM in their attempt to combat the vertically integrated platform of Apple. Eventually, IBM lost the war -- and their lieutenants Microsoft and Intel are on their own now.

            As I see it, Microsoft will likely adopt the Apple model entirely and Intel.. who knows.
            danbi
          • I think you are right

            about Microsoft trying to be more Apple-like. In fact, I'd say they are trying to be more Apple-like than Apple as they re-invent Microsoft's offerings.
            DancesWithTrolls
          • Actually....

            Blame Steve Jobs and Apple on why Windows trounced the Mac. Read the Isaacson book. It stated clearly that JObs didn't want others to tinker with anything from Apple. Therefore the Mac OS would only work on Mac hardware. But because less were sold, higher production costs. Apple could of easily sold the Mac OS to anyone. Put it on a former Windows PC or anywhere but they didn't.
            Gisabun
      • Re: 1.3 billion installs

        You surely don't think that many of the pre-XP Windows licenses still run?

        There aren't that many desktops running worldwide...
        danbi
        • At one time

          Before my HD died a month or so ago, I ran DOS 6.22, Win95, ReactOS, WinXP all in virtual devices on my Windows 7 pc...
          hiraghm
      • In prespective

        That's less than a year and a half of Android sales, at current levels. And that's all in use at the same time, not just "installs".

        Shouldn't be an issue for desktop-class Windows anyway... Android is not competing there. But for Windows RT tablets and phones? Big issue. And Apple's poised to outsell Microsoft, unit-wise, in 2015 if not 2014.

        They need to do much, much better to get their core base back. Yes, PC sales are falling, and while Windows 8 isn't the only reason, it's part of the whole problem. Microsoft could make it part of the solution, but not by annoying existing users and developers alike, in order to maybe bring a small number of them over to Microsoft mobile products.
        Hazydave