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Windows 8.1: New features, but same problems

Microsoft fixes some complaints about Windows 8, such as the lack of a Start button, but the features likely won't change buyers' opinions.

Windows 8.1 keeps the live tiles but adds back in a Start button.
Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Microsoft is hoping for a Windows 8 do-over with version 8.1 of the operating system, but this reboot likely isn't enough to change buyers' opinions.

Windows 8 was the first major redesign of the storied Windows OS in years, and its launch was accompanied by a loud and splashy campaign. For consumers, however, that largely amounted to a lot of background noise.

By trying to address both tablets and PCs, Microsoft ended up not serving either particularly well. Rather than one interface, users had to toggle between the traditional desktop view and the new tile-centric interface, formerly known as "metro," to perform many tasks. Other regular actions became complicated or took more steps, and the beloved Start button disappeared entirely. If a user didn't have a touch-screen PC, Windows 8 became a confusing mess.

Windows 8 has been a flop. The operating system was supposed to save the PC industry, fending off encroaching competition from Android and iOS tablets. Instead, it has succeeded in alienating both consumers and business users. Windows 8 actually has hurt PC shipments instead of boosting them, with sales declining for six quarters in a row, analysts say. Overall PC demand this year is expected to drop nearly 10 percent, according to some estimates. And Windows comprised less than 5 percent of tablet shipments in the second quarter.

Windows 8.1 addresses some of those issues, but what it doesn't do is cure Microsoft's schizophrenia. The company knows it can't shun the billion legacy computers it has to support, but it also can't miss out on the push into mobile. Unfortunately for Microsoft, trying to satisfy both at the same time has left nearly everyone unhappy. Windows 8.1 is more of a patch to appease business users, but it doesn't get Microsoft any closer to becoming a significant player in mobile. Instead, it's the operating system that Windows 8 should have been.

"This has been a little bit of a wake-up call for Microsoft," IDC analyst Al Gillen said. "It couldn't just come into the tablet market and be dominant on Day 1. It will have to fight for market share."

Windows 8.1 is an incremental upgrade to the operating system, which means it's not a major overhaul but a tweak of the prior version. However, Microsoft added some key features sorely lacking in Windows 8. That includes a new, modified Start button, as well as the opportunity to boot the PC directly to the old-style desktop mode.

Now playing: Watch this: Windows 8.1: should you upgrade?

Including those features -- standards of older Windows versions -- is partly an admission that Microsoft's bold move wasn't the right one. Windows 8.1 in many ways represents a step backward for Windows. That's not necessarily a bad thing -- after all, everyone panicked about that Start button -- and it shows Microsoft clearly is listening to what users want. In addition, many of these features, such as boot to desktop, allow a PC to be just a PC, if that's what users want. But whether a Windows tablet can just be a tablet is another matter.

Microsoft officials, meanwhile, touted the number of copies of Windows 8 the company sold early on, but it has been mum in recent months. More than 40 million people bought the operating system the first month it was commercially available, and as of early May, more than 100 million Windows 8 licenses had been sold. That figure is on par with Windows 7, which was broadly accepted in the market. However, licenses sold isn't actually the same thing as the number of PCs actually running Windows 8. That figure is believed to be lower.

"While this business faces some headwinds in our PC market, with the PC market growth and with the acceptance of Windows 8 in the marketplace, we have a full transition that's under way," Chief Operating Officer Kevin Turner said during Microsoft's analyst day last month. "In fact, we have an incredible transition that's under way. And we have got some incredible momentum and some incredible growth, and we see some incredible opportunities."

The dismal response to Windows 8 isn't all Microsoft's fault. The company designed the operating system for touch, but it was tough for consumers to get their hands on such devices when the software first launched. Initially, supply shortages hurt touch panel supplies, and that also boosted prices.

A year ago, only about 15 percent of notebooks contained touch screens, estimates Tim Bajarin, president of tech research firm Creative Strategies, and most cost $800 or more. Now that total will be close to 50 percent, and next year will be about 80 percent, he said. And those devices won't all be the priciest PCs on the market.

Windows 8.1 lets users boot directly to the desktop and brings back a modified Start button.

"This year, we're going to see laptops with touch screens on them for around $500, so they're much more affordable," Bajarin said.

However, simply offering lower-priced products doesn't change the fact that even with the updates, users and Microsoft are still making a compromise in many ways.

This identity crisis reaches all the way up to Microsoft's management. Steven Sinofsky, the man who led Windows 8 development, left the company about a month after the operating system's release. Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's CEO since 2000, will retire sometime within the next year. And the company's board reportedly is split on whom to name as his replacement, with The Wall Street Journal reporting that the directors can't agree on Microsoft's future direction.

Another Windows 8 update will arrive in the spring, according to CNET sister site ZDNet, and the company may even introduce a bigger, new version of Windows in the fall of 2014. More likely, though, is a major release of Windows in the spring of 2015, ZDNet reported, a move that brings the current Windows and Windows Phone operating systems closer together.

Unfortunately for Microsoft -- and millions of PC users -- there's really no easy solution in the short run. For now, Windows users will have to settle for the 8.1 fixes and wait for Microsoft to figure out its future.