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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

May 30, 2013 at 6:01 AM

With Windows 8.1, Microsoft goes retro — and says “uncle”

Break out the beige PC boxes – Microsoft is going retro with its next version of Windows.

To get its flagship software back on course, Microsoft is releasing a new version called Windows 8.1 – an old-school name that’s an olive branch to longtime Windows users alienated by the modern style of Windows 8.

Lots of minor tweaks were made and the company is highlighting flashy new apps and cloud synchronization. But don’t let that distract you from the biggest change.

With 8.1, Microsoft finally is saying “uncle” and will no longer force Windows users to start with its new tile interface. Windows 8.1 will give users the option of configuring their PCs so they start up with a traditional, Windows 7-style desktop.

A preview version of the software will be available June 26 and the final version is expected by the holidays.

Being forced to use the modern interface — and constantly switching between old and new modes — is one of the biggest complaints about Windows 8. Particularly among hardcore Windows users. Their complaints about the modern interface and lack of options for changing default settings have created uncertainty about the software’s quality.

A little uncertainty goes a long way for consumers who are already unsure about whether they should buy a new PC or consider a tablet or other computing device. That’s partly why Windows 8 has failed to revive the struggling PC industry.

But this is about more than appeasing the pocket-protector set. Whether they like the look of Windows 8 or not, corporate tech buyers won’t  embrace the operating system as long as Microsoft is being inflexible and pushing a design agenda that doesn’t make PCs more useful or productive for their companies.

It’s no skin off the nose of Jensen Harris, the Windows 8 user experience lead, who previously helped modernize the look and feel of Office with the “ribbon” interface.

Allowing people to opt out of the tiled, “Metro” interface must be painful, I asked Harris last week.

“No, not at all,” he said.

Really? How does he feel about the change?

“I feel great about it,” he said. “This is people’s PCs. We’re proud of the [traditional] desktop. I don’t think it’s the future. We don’t think that’s where most of the dev ingenuity is happening.”

Still, users need to have the choice, and Windows 8 provides an interface that works on tablets as well as desktops, and runs both apps and full-blown versions of programs such as Adobe Photoshop, he noted.

“We think they’re going to love the new stuff, we think it’s going to become indispensable, but that doesn’t mean we want to keep them from doing things,” he said. “And so I feel great about this. It’s user choice, and so if the user says ‘I want to do this this’ then they can do it.”

The 8.1 moniker may not mean much to most consumers, but it’s a dog whistle for longtime Windows users, the kind of people who fondly remember using floppy discs back in the day to upgrade PCs the size of a suitcase.

A milestone in Microsoft’s history was the release of Windows 3.1 in the spring of 1992, fixing assorted problems that were holding back Windows 3.0.

Then as now, Microsoft was scrapping in an ultracompetitive environment as computing leaped ahead. It simultaneously was trying to pull users forward, from trusty old DOS to the graphical computing approach it introduced with 3.0. Improvements that finally came with 3.1 helped persuade holdouts to upgrade to the newfangled version of Windows.

I asked Harris and Windows Vice President Antoine Leblond whether the name Windows 8.1 was some kind of reference to Windows 3.1.

“We like the Windows 8 name and we want this to be very clearly an update,” Leblond said.

But isn’t it also geeky — an overture to the power users alienated by the consumer-y, tablet-y feel of Windows 8?

“Look — it’s very Windows and we like that,” Leblond said. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Harris took the bait.

“It’s very ‘old Windows,’ ” he concurred. “To me what it said was it comes with a humility. It’s a humility that comes from saying, look, we’re working really hard. We believe in our vision. We’re not stepping away from Windows 8. We love Windows. This is the next step and it’s just 8.1.”

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