Windows 8.1 Update: an abject surrender

11 Apr 2014

Microsoft has become the Manchester United of the technology industry. After dominating for much of the 1990s and 2000s, it’s now suffering a crisis of confidence, crippled with uncertainty when it steps out on to the pitch. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Windows 8.1 Update, or Windows Compromise Edition – Wince for short.

In an effort to appease the Windows 8 haters, Microsoft is backpedalling furiously. You don’t like the Start screen? We’ll just hide that out of the way and pretend it never existed (on laptops and desktops, at least). You want the Start button back? You can have that next time. At this rate, we’re going to have rolling hills in the desktop background, IE6 set as the default browser, and a free trial of AOL waiting on the desktop of Windows 8.2.

Microsoft seemingly wants me to go back to 2003’s way of opening everything from the desktop

Windows 8 was a long way from perfect, but Windows 8.1 had corrected many of the mistakes made in that original release. I may be in the minority, but I actually liked the Start Screen. With live tiles running for Mail, People, News, Weather and various other apps, I could boot my PC first thing in the morning and see a dashboard of live information, bringing me immediately up to speed on anything I missed overnight. Now I’m sent straight to the desktop, with absolutely nothing going on. To all intents and purposes, I might as well be running Windows 7.

The Start Screen haters already had the option in Windows 8.1 to boot straight to the desktop if they didn’t want to see it. Why change the default behaviour now? Making Windows 8.1 behave exactly like Windows 7 isn’t going to prompt a tidal wave of upgrades (why switch to what you’ve already got?) and the next time Microsoft attempts to do away with the desktop – most likely in Windows 9 – it’s going to face a barrage of criticism from the Start Menu zealots all over again.

Just in case you’ve forgotten about those new-fangled Windows apps, which you’re even less likely to use now the Start Screen has been tucked behind the stage curtains, Microsoft has dumped a Windows Store icon on everyone’s taskbar: a none-too-subtle reminder that Windows apps can now be run from the desktop. Once again, however, it’s a kludge.

The Windows apps now have maximise and minimise buttons on them, but no option to manually resize the windows, bar the vertical split-screen options that existed previously. StarDock’s ModernMix showed Microsoft how this should have been done, with Windows apps running in self-contained, resizable windows, just like any other desktop app. Now we’re stuck in no-man’s land.

The user path is bafflingly inconsistent, too. If you go to the Start Screen, open a Windows app by clicking on its tile, and then click the close button, you’re not returned back to the Start screen, as you would surely expect, but back to the desktop. Having spent two years trying to convince us this new Start screen is the future, Microsoft now seems determined to bury it at every given opportunity.

I’m sure with a few settings tweaks, I’ll be able to return most of these settings to the way they operated when Windows 8.1 was first released, but what’s the point? I adapted my way of working and deeply ingrained habits to accommodate Microsoft’s vision for the future of Windows – opening new apps by typing on the Start Screen, for example. Now Microsoft seemingly wants me to go back to 2003’s way of opening everything from the desktop.

Microsoft’s lost its bottle. I simply don’t know what its vision for Windows is any more.

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