Microsoft concedes Windows 8.1 needs more for mouse, keyboard customers

Even so, it renews vow to push touch strategy

Microsoft has publicly acknowledged what leaks had already shown, that the company will issue an update to Windows 8.1 this (southern) autumn that provides more tools for owners of traditional PCs controlled by mouse and keyboard.

In a press conference at Mobile World Congress (MWC) and an accompanying blog post, Joe Belfiore, the executive in charge of Windows Phone's and Windows 8's user experiences, announced that the update will launch this autumn, but did not put an official name on the revision or reveal a timetable.

Most analysts and pundits have used "Windows 8.1 Update 1" as the name of the impending update, and believe it will be released in early April, either at the Build developers conference, slated to run April 2-4 in San Francisco, or on that month's Patch Tuesday, which is April 8.

Coincidentally, April 8 is also the day when Microsoft will deliver the final public security updates for Windows XP.

"We are making improvements to the user interface that will naturally bridge touch and desktop, especially for our mouse and keyboard users," Belfiore wrote on the Windows Phone blog. "We have a number of targeted UI [user interface] improvements that keep our highly satisfying touch experience intact, but that make the UI more familiar and more convenient for users with mouse/keyboard [emphasis in original]."

Among the changes in Windows 8.1 Update 1, according to PCWorld, which was at Microsoft's MWC press event, will be search, power and settings icons displayed on the Start screen (currently, users must bring those into view by clicking on the bottom-right corner of the screen, or on a touch-enabled device, swiping from the right); the ability to launch and switch "Metro" apps from the desktop's taskbar; and a right-click menu that lets mouse users close apps and return to the Start screen.

Other changes believed to be in Update 1 include a default boot-to-desktop setting on non-touch hardware -- which some analysts have interpreted as a retreat from the "make-them-eat-Metro" strategy Microsoft started with for Windows 8.

Belfiore denied that Sunday. "Don't worry, we still LOVE and BELIEVE IN touch," he wrote in his blog post. During the news conference, Belfiore reiterated that affection. "We love touch [and] we have no intent to degrade the touch experience," he said.

He also asserted that other changes would "enable our partners to build lower cost hardware for a great Windows experience at highly competitive price points."

Specifically, Windows 8.1 will be retuned to relax its hardware requirements. According to Belfiore, the update will run on devices with as little as 1GB of RAM and 16GB of flash memory storage space.

Windows 8.1's current system requirements demand 1GB (for the 32-bit version) or 2GB (64-bit) of RAM, and between 16GB and 20GB of storage space.

Storage space has been an issue with Windows 8 and its 8.1 successor, particularly on tablets, because of the operating system's large footprint: A 64GB Surface Pro 2, which runs Windows 8.1, has just 37GB of user-available storage space after the OS and other code are installed.

It's unclear how Microsoft will reduce the Windows 8.1 footprint -- currently 27GB on a Surface Pro 2 -- to fit a device with just 16GB of storage space.

Putting Windows 8.1 on a storage diet would be another way for Microsoft to encourage OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) to design and sell lower-priced tablets and laptops as part of a strategy to better compete with cheap Android tablets and low-priced Chromebook notebooks. Last week, claims surfaced that Microsoft had slashed the price of a Windows 8.1 license by 70% to OEMs for devices that cost less than $250.

"Microsoft has historically cut prices or provided marketing dollars to thwart a competitive threat, so it makes sense they would be doing it here," said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, of the license price cut.

Belfiore acknowledged that users of Windows 8 and 8.1 on traditional non-touch hardware, which makes up the vast bulk of the installed PC ecosystem and still dominates new systems sales, were "a little less satisfied" than they had been with Windows 7.

From the tone of the most vocal Windows users, some with decades of experience with the OS, Belfiore's "little less satisfied" would be viewed as a monumental understatement. Windows 8 and 8.1 have failed to capture the hearts and minds of long-time customers, particularly enterprises, which remain the core source of Microsoft's revenue. At best, the consensus of business is apathy toward Windows 8's radical attempt to push touch, at worst, antagonistic.

Windows 7, analysts believe, will continue as the standard business OS for years.

Microsoft hopes to turn that around, if only slowly and slightly, with the spring update, even as it renewed its commitment to its touch-first strategy.

"With Windows 8, there's no doubt that we made a big bet and took a first step toward that future," Belfiore said on the blog. "We bet on touch and on mobility in a big way, and included a fresh take on what a touch-based interface could be for customers. We believe deeply in this direction and the future will continue to build on Windows 8."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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