Several sources (e.g. Mary Jo Foley) report that Microsoft will bring back the missing Start Button and ability to boot straight to Desktop in Windows Blue (effectively Windows 8.1) to be released later this year.
Such a major U-turn raises questions about Microsoft’s strategic thinking – the whole philosophy behind their ‘one size fits all’ approach to Windows 8 was the creation of a single OS, equally at home on tablets and PCs.
To facilitate this radical step, Microsoft went out of their way to force PC users to adopt the new mobile-centric ‘modern’ user interface – as Paul Thurrott reported, Microsoft even took the “drastic step of removing legacy Start menu code from the internals of Windows 8” to make it harder for third party developers to restore it.
Microsoft clearly hoped that users would adapt to the new interface and, in time, come to appreciate or love it – no doubt the potential profits to be made from the new Windows App Store played some part in their thinking too.
Whilst I always thought those hopes were seriously misguided, I almost have to admire their chutzpah in ignoring feedback from so many W8 Previewers last year that the resulting user interface on non-touch PCs could cause confusion of Jekyll and Hyde proportions.
Whilst W8 has gained plaudits on tablets, and the underlying Desktop technology/security is certainly an improvement over W7, it was often hamstrung by its dual focus – it polarized opinions amongst PC geeks and users to an extent not seen since the early days of Vista.
To propose the reintroduction of options for a Start Button and boot to Desktop in Windows 8.1 suggests Microsoft have finally realized it was a mistake to focus solely on their own needs at the expense of their average user. They almost bet the house on forcing non-touch devices to use the new interface – and they lost, for now. Many senior execs behind that Windows 8 philosophy have since been jettisoned or fallen on their own sword as a result.
Microsoft may have lost an unnecessary battle but Windows Blue/8.1 could also herald the beginning of annual Windows releases – a welcome improvement, mirroring Apple’s model of regular but cheaper OS upgrades.
Such a sales model could actually improve Microsoft’s bottom line, especially in the face of dramatically reduced new PC sales. As I reported last week, 38% of PCs still run XP – and Microsoft only ever made any money on a single license for each, up to 12 years ago…
It is also important to note that, despite its mixed reception, Windows 8 is a definite improvement upon Windows 7 – if the user interface issues are ignored… It was always going to be a risky strategy to shoehorn the same OS onto disparate devices but Microsoft have actually managed to achieve it very well.
If Windows 8.1 does provide the choice of a W7 interface running W8 technology, it could still win over detractors and change the perception of W8 itself – assuming it is a free upgrade for existing W8 users.
However, there is no clear sign yet as to whether there will be a free upgrade for W8 (or at least the revised UI options offered in a free Service Pack) – if not, Microsoft will have managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, again…