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The Windows 8.1 Report: Too Little, Too Late?

So Microsoft has taken the wraps off a sorely needed refresh for the failing Windows 8. To some, it couldn’t come at a better time, because Microsoft has been vilified for totally misreading the trends in the PC industry, or just acting out of total desperation. Regardless, it’s pretty certain that Windows 8 has done nothing to encourage more people to buy a new computer; at least a Windows PC.

But it is true that the forthcoming Windows 8.1 is designed to fix a few things that were roundly criticized with the first release. That Microsoft is, compared to their usual timeline, rushing out a fixer-upper a year after the original release, clearly indicates the company was stung by the criticisms. They were couldn’t anticipate the unfavorable response to this unfortunate mess, and thus had to send their developers scrambling for a solution. Or at least that’s the impression.

So, for example, there’s a more useful Start menu, which may take away business from those shareware developers who came up with their own variations on this theme. Apple is being severely criticized by some just for changing the artwork, not the core functionality, of iOS 7. But Microsoft didn’t have any valid reason for tossing the Start menu in the first place. It’s not as if the original replacement was better; just different.

There will also be a way to default boot to the Windows 8.1 desktop, which addresses the concerns of users who don’t want to constantly confront the interface formerly known as Metro and need to use legacy apps that look and work like Windows apps.

For those with large displays, you’ll be able to run more apps side by side, but why is there any limitation on a traditional multitasking OS? You’d think that might be needed on a smartphone, where you just don’t have sufficient screen space or system resources to handle multiple windows. But a regular PC?

The real issue, however, is that Windows 8.1 comes across as just a rushed shave and haircut in a desperate effort to address some of the most serious concerns about the original release. It will be a free upgrade, according to published reports, and will arrive in time for the holiday season. The hope, I guess, is to fuel sales of new PCs, but will Microsoft again cut the upgrade price, as they did for early adopters? What if Apple makes OS X Mavericks a free upgrade? Will Apple continue to attract more PC users to the Mac?

So the changes in Windows 8.1 appear for the most part to be commendable. However, Microsoft is still focusing on the touch-based tiled interface, rather than expand what you can do in the desktop environment. Microsoft expects — or hopes — that customers will embrace the changes and get with the program. It’s not that the company will just throw out the entire Windows 8 train wreck and return to something based on Windows 7.

But what if, as industry analysts indicate, PC market share continues to erode, meaning Microsoft sells fewer and fewer Windows licenses? What if the forthcoming Modern UI version of Office fails to catch on? Can Microsoft just drop everything and dump Windows 8, or give the desktop environment greater emphasis?

I suppose that, in the scheme of things, the Windows 8.1 refresh is pretty much all that Microsoft could do to salvage this mess. It’s not the same as the “New Coke,” where Coca Cola company simply introduced a new product, “Classic,” that restored the original recipe for the soft drink.

Or maybe…

Would Microsoft consider a Windows 7 fork, perhaps dubbed Windows 7.5, which would enhance the OS with a smattering of touch-savvy features, but focus mostly on improving the traditional or “Classic” Windows look and feel? That might be an even smarter way to get out from under this mess.

Right now, the PCs that work best with Windows 8 require touch support. That, of course, makes them more expensive, and suddenly even the entry-level Macs, such as the Mac mini and the MacBook Air, begin to look downright affordable in comparison. Sure, Windows RT tablets, supporting the ARM mobile processors, are relatively inexpensive. But sales remain simply awful, and it’s not certain that Windows 8.1 will be so much better as to make a difference.

These days, the market has swung to tablets. The iPad and Android tablets dominate, and it is reported that tablet sales are poised to exceed PC sales within a couple of years. Unless things suddenly change, that situation isn’t going to help Microsoft’s prospects. Regardless of the worth of the modest changes, it’s not at all certain that Windows 8.1 is going to have much of an impact in reversing the tide.

So where does Microsoft go with this mess? Well, there’s that forthcoming corporate reorganization, but whether it really improves the company’s prospects or is just another case of executive musical chairs isn’t clear yet. The OS strategy has already been laid out, so will that strategy be tossed or simply followed through with little or no change? And will it help improve Microsoft’s future prospects? Or will the Microsoft Death Watch continue?