Can the new Windows 8.1 bring back users?

At long last, Microsoft has given up force-feeding the Windows 8 Metro/Modern interface on users. Have they done it in time to keep their user-base?
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

First, because I can't resist, let me just say "I told you so!"

I'd said all along that Windows 8's Metro interface was downright awful for desktop users. I was right. Windows 8 saw PC sales plummet to their worst level in a generation. Under new leadership, Microsoft has finally bought a clue and is retrofitting Windows 8.x's Metro/Modern desktop with a much more keyboard- and mouse-friendly Windows, Icon, Menu, and Pointer (WIMP) interface.

New Windows 8.1 Start button and Taskbar

I can only ask, "What took you so long Microsoft?" Popular programs, such as Stardock's Start8, showed that Windows power users craved their Start Menu. Besides, Windows 8.x's abysmal usage numbers were even worse than Microsoft's previous all-time operating system flop, Vista. It doesn't take the next coming of GE CEO genius Jack Welch to realize when a core product has failed.

Be that as it may, Microsoft has gotten it now. The new Windows 8.1 update looks much better to Microsoft's core customer base than its predecessors. Even I think it's OK, and if I haven't been Windows 8's harshest critic, I'm in the running.

But, is it enough? Or, is it too late?

A close-up look at the Windows 8.1 Update

I don't know.

I do know that there are a lot of disillusioned Windows users out there. On the other hand, since this update has been timed to come out at the same time that XP's support is coming to an end, Microsoft is clearly hoping that XP users will make the move to the latest Windows 8 rather than say iPads; Chromebooks, or, even desktop Linux distributions such as Mint .

I'm sure many of those XP users will move to this new Windows 8. But enough?

First, Microsoft has burned through a lot of customer good will in the last few years. Some Windows users are frankly not that impressed with the new update.

At the same time, Microsoft has given its users a way to use Apple iPads with Office. Since Apple and Android tablet sales have been rising even while Windows PC sales have fallen, this move strikes me as undercutting their own primary market at a time when it's already in trouble. How wise can this really be?

Lest we forget, Microsoft also decided to get into the hardware business itself with its Surface line. The hardware vendors saw this as Microsoft stabbing them in the back. This, combined with PC's horrid sales, had led OEMs to selling Chromebooks and to even trying out the idea of running Android on PCs instead of Windows. These weren't small, no-name companies moving away from Windows. This was the top of the PC industry: HP and Lenovo. In the meantime, AMD and Intel have been working on bringing Android and Windows to the same PC.

Can Microsoft woo its hardware partners back? It's going to take more than just a better version of Windows. I suspect that behind closed doors, Microsoft brass will be offering OEMs deals almost as sweet at its no cost Windows Phone effort to claim some mobile market-share.

It's going to be very interesting to watch how this plays out. By this time next year we'll know if Microsoft has managed to reclaim its users' and vendors' mind-share, or if we really are seeing the end of the PC computing market in favor of a mobile, cloud-based computing paradigm. At this point, I could see it going either way.

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