An early build of Windows Blue, the first upgrade for Windows 8, somewhere between a service pack and Windows 9, has leaked online allowing users a peek at what Microsoft plans for its evolved user interface. Will it make any difference to the depressed PC market in a mobile-obsessed world?
After the Giant Leap
Windows 8 was a huge adventure for Microsoft and while it might not have shaken PC sales from their torpor or helped fortify Microsoft against the rise of mobiles and tablets, it has moved the Windows environment on, created a Surface brand and made Windows more accessible to those raised on mobile devices.
However, since businesses and many users wait for the first major update before upgrading their existing OS, could this be a spark of home for box sellers? Windows Blue is also Microsoft's effort to push the pace of development, in a world that sees new browser updates weekly, Android updates with cool names and every teeny iOS update generate thousands of headlines.
But for those tens of millions of long-time users, Windows 8 is really plain old Windows. They click or tap the desktop tile at the first opportunity and do all their usual tasks from those near familiar surroundings. Windows Blue, Microsoft's next version of the OS, needs to improve how the Windows 8 tile interface looks and reacts to users needs.
Having used Windows 8 for a few months out now, I was horrified at the sprawling mess in the tiles section as I'd been happily working in 'proper Windows' since day one. Why ignore the pretty new tiles? Because Windows 8's native apps were poor featureless versions of the real things, the media apps were pigs, and at a glance, not much has changed. Most of that is down to Windows still being Windows and most developers still addressing their core user's needs, not pandering to this largely cosmetic front end.
Fix the Problems, Not the Decor
From my general use experience, in Windows 8, most boots are followed by a pause for the circular dots to race around as some essential update is installed. Insert any memory stick into a Windows 8 PC and it politely tells you there's a problem with it, and requests to scan it, even though there is no issue (and there's no way to get rid of the message).
When there is a "problem," Windows still takes four-or-five minutes to do its background diagnostics and recovery, while the interface is there pretending to work, but you can't do anything. All these ghosts of Windows past are still there, haunting users.
These are things that Windows Blue needs to address. So, what's the verdict on this early version that is doing the rounds? Well, the key highlights seem to be the addition of smaller tiles, allowing users to cram yet more icons they'll never use into the tiled-space. There's improved customization options and the charms have been simplified with a new Play option and the ability to share a screenshot or photo with other apps. And there are extra app-tiling options allowing you to run more apps side by side or in different configurations and there's the first glance at Internet Explorer 11.
On the plus side, there are a lot more settings available in the tiles menus, saving users having to switch between the old desktop and the new. Presumably there's a lot more going on under the hood. But users would have hoped that Microsoft would spend more time fixing the stuff that matters, which will take a detailed inspection of an official beta and not a really early leak. Instead Microsoft seems to be pimping the front end in fairly trivial ways.
A Future of Broken Tiles?
While Microsoft still has massive dominance of the desktop market, ecosystems like Chromebooks, Mac and mini Linux boxes like Raspberry Pi are subtly altering the way the computer is used in offices and homes. Who else boots into Windows 8, goes to the Desktop, checks some essentials, then launches Google Chrome and then spend most of their working/computing day in there.
How long will it be before users go the whole hog and those sleek new Chromebooks break out from their niche, or the raft of tablets-with-keyboards bring full Android desktops to the fore? Microsoft can play around with the interface all it likes, but unless it develops a massive following for Windows 8 phones and tablets, it is hard to see Windows 8's tiles gaining any more relevance for users.
Sure, Microsoft won't go away, but its relevance and attempts to innovate are looking increasingly pointless, and it will take a lot more than what's been seen in this (admittedly very early, build 9364) look at the future to generate any confidence. Yes, plenty of new features could still be hidden, but if Windows 8 couldn't get the PC market rolling again, a few tweaks won't help matters.