Change might have become one of the constants of our hectic lives, but managing that change remains a headache. Ask Microsoft. A couple of years ago, the company from Redmond took a bold new step in computer operating systems when it moved from a totally mouse and keyboard based UI to a touch-oriented one with Windows 8.
It was magnificent in terms of makeover. But alas, not everyone took kindly to it.
And contrary to what a lot of pundits say, in my opinion, hardware was as much to blame as software for the slow uptake of Windows 8. For, yes, while there was no doubting that people found the tile-based Metro/Modern UI very different from the Windows interface of old, there was also the little matter of needing a touchscreen to really get the most out of it – and adding a touchscreen is far more expensive than adding more RAM or a new hard drive to a PC (mind you, most users baulk at that too). Considering that an overwhelming majority of Windows devices were non-touchscreen affairs, a touchscreen-based UI was a huge gamble, as it necessitated a change in hardware as well. Shades of Windows Vista which needed far superior graphics than Windows XP. And we all know how THAT particular OS fared.
What was, however, also notable about the Vista affair was the speed at which Microsoft spotted, acknowledged and fixed real as well as perceived shortcomings. The result: a sleeker, faster and less clunky Windows (Windows 7) arguably the greatest OS ever developed for machines that used keyboards and mice.
And judging by what we saw a few hours ago, the folk at Redmond are still very quick at picking up the ball, especially after dropping it. For, make no mistake about it, notwithstanding all the noise about Cortana and apps that run on any Windows device (PC, phone or
Television), the 8.1 update represents the Revenge of the Desktop, which had seemingly been given short shrift in the initial release of the OS. Consider the evidence: modern UI apps (the ones designed for the tiled interface) can be pinned to the desktop taskbar, Windows 8 apps will have a menu bar on top to help users close them, you can right click on the Windows 8 Start screen for contextual menus that let you open/unpin/resize/uninstall apps, the OS will automatically determine whether it is running on a non-touch device and will boot into desktop mode without any intervention from the user, and last but not least, the much missed Start button will return, albeit with the ability to show tiles as well as icons. Yep, this is Windows 8 made keyboard and mouse friendly, with the Desktop mode being given new respect.
Call it regressive if you wish, or a step back from the original Windows 8 vision, the fact is that the Windows 8.1 update does make the OS more inclusive. Windows 8 had attempted to carry existing Windows users kicking and screaming into touch territory. The 8.1 update allows them to access a much richer interface without having to significantly change their existing devices, while gently nudging them towards touch – the tiled Modern interface is still there and still makes the conventional Desktop look relatively dated. The big question, of course, is if this represents as big a step for Windows 8 as Windows 7 did for Vista, and will it, like the latter, win back lost ground for Microsoft? Honestly, we are not too sure, and the main reason for that is that Windows 7 itself is still around and remains more mouse and keyboard friendly than any of the avatars of Windows 8 released this far.
That said, Windows 8.1 Update is going to tempt a lot more people towards updating their older, pre-Windows 8 operating systems, simply because the pain of change is markedly lesser. Adding to the temptation to change will be the fact that the Windows 8 after this update will require lesser resources and run more smoothly, which could mean it appearing on even more affordable notebooks and desktops. And well, the fact that Windows is going to be free on any device with a display of less than nine inches – phone or tablet – should drive down the prices of many portable Windows 8 tablets and phones, and maybe even result in the release of a whole new bunch of low-cost convertibles (taking on the Chromebook? Who knows?!).
Yes, the hype machine will talk of Windows coming to a new set of customers and being better and more accessible than ever before. And to an extent, like all hype machines, there is some truth in these claims. The bigger picture however is this: the keyboard and the mouse are alive and kicking, as is the venerable Desktop mode of Windows. George Santayana had once remarked that those who forgot history were condemned to repeat it. And Windows 8.1 update is a case in point of an organization that for a moment took its eyes off the lessons its previous OS had taught it – do not force drastic hardware and software changes, especially when your older OS is still around and working fine. And just as in the case of Vista, I am wagering Microsoft will get its next Windows spot-on right – Windows 9 will be to Windows 8 and its many variations what Windows 7 was to Vista is my guess.
As for the Windows 8.1 Update, it is not as much of a new ‘Start’ as the revenge of the desktop. Pun intended.