Under starters orders

Tuesday 02 July 2013 08.32
The new user interface on Window 8.1 will be made somewhat more palatable when full version is available
The new user interface on Window 8.1 will be made somewhat more palatable when full version is available

Is adding one button enough to convince users of the merits of Windows 8, asks Niall Kitson.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s big reveals at last week’s Build conference would not have come as much of a surprise to Windows anoraks. A developer preview of Windows 8.1 - codenamed Blue - had been circulating on the Internet since late April, so as far as the software goes there was little to warrant the clapping and whooping over small-yet-convenient features that developer events are notorious for (Apple’s WWDC being the worst offender).

So what will you get later this year when the full version of 8.1 is available as a free update? Well the new user interface will be made somewhat more palatable. Users will be able to customise the colour and background of their Start screen, change the shape of tiles, use Skype without having to unlock the device, synchronising of Web browser bookmarks on both flavours of Internet Explorer and an integrated search function that pulls in information from the device and the Web, presented as a single body of results. And yes, the Start button - or rather, a version of it - has returned.

Despite the best efforts of many users and the proliferation of apps like Pikko and Skip Metro Suite that do their best to help you forget about the new interface, the new Start button is a shortcut to the Windows 8 UI screen, nothing more. All of a sudden that much-desired ‘boot to desktop’ function isn’t as awesome as you had hoped.

So we won’t be getting everything we wanted from Windows 8.1 but Ballmer & Co weren’t in the mood for compromise. Ballmer admitted Windows 8 got off to a rocky start in that it was a touch optimised operating system in a market where the majority of laptops were not touch-enabled but, we were assured, OEMs had come on board with a ‘Windows everywhere’ vision delivering a consistent user experience across PCs, laptops, tablets, hybrids and smartphones. HTC, Acer, Nokia, Samsung and Lenovo all showed off devices optimised for Windows 8 and Ballmer also made special mention o f smaller form factor tablets in the 8” category, praising them for being ideal for students before emphasising he did not consider them full PCs. Useful, but not that useful. And let’s not forget the importance of the Surface - because Microsoft is a software and devices company now. Surface Pro users would certainly agree.

Demonstrations aside, Ballmer’s keynote was notable for one point - 8.1 is not the first update for Windows 8 and we’re going to see a lot more of them. Faster iteration from the open source community and Apple have forced Microsoft’s hand in releasing newer versions of their software faster. How this will work in practice will be worth tracking. Are we about to see Microsoft adopting shorter lifespans for their operating systems? How much will we be charged to stay up to date? Apple has been successful in rapid OS iteration by making upgrading easy and roughly a third of the cost of a copy of Windows (Home edition, naturally).

In terms of software Build might not have had that much up its sleeve, but Microsoft’s new direction has provided enough talking points to make its transition into a company based on a “rapid release” paradigm interesting to follow. Let’s see if it doesn’t trip over itself trying to keep up with its own ambitions.

Niall Kitson is editor of TechCentral.ie