As important as the Windows 8 launch was for Microsoft, especially considering how radical a design overhaul it was, the launch of its Windows 8.1 upgrade (originally codenamed Windows Blue) later this year may be just as important.
While Windows 8 has been developed primarily with touch-screen interfaces in mind, it has suffered some significant blowback from traditional PC users. Many aren't fond of the new Start screen's Metro Live Tile interface, and the inability to go straight to the desktop has ruffled more than a few feathers.
Windows 8.1, then, needs to appease critics while also moving Microsoft's touch-based plans forward. There's no official release date pegged for the software upgrade yet, but it will be free, and it will launch this year. Let's take a look at five big improvements Microsoft is making.
Partial Olive Branch For PC Users
First things first: Microsoft will allow Windows 8.1 users to boot their computers straight to the desktop, bypassing the Metro screen completely. The Start button is also making a comeback, but not to the extent that many PC users may have liked to see. Clicking it will not bring up a pop-up menu of programs and options, but rather it will allow users to quickly and easily move between the desktop mode and the Metro Start screen. While these tweaks won't please those who want the traditional system back, it should make the whole OS easier to navigate.
Customization And PC Settings - All Through Metro
Windows 8 originally launched with just a couple of tile size options, but Windows 8.1 will allow users to customize their home screen even more. There will be options for tiny square tiles as well as large ones, and that'll be in addition to the rectangles and squares already available, so rearranging the screen the way you like will be even easier.
In addition to that, you'll no longer need to enter desktop mode to fiddle around with PC settings. All that stuff will be possible through the Metro screen. This isn't a big deal for PC users, but for tablet owners, it's another story. Navigating a traditional desktop on a touch device can be a hassle, and Windows 8.1 will make that burden unnecessary.
Bing And Search
Perhaps Microsoft's most ambitious move with Windows 8.1 is in how it implements Bing. It's not just a search engine anymore, but something that powers the entire experience. Searching with Windows 8.1 will not just give you internet results, it'll also sift through relevant files on your physical device as all as in the Cloud. Simply click on something and it will open in the relevant app. Music will open in Xbox Music, movies in Netflix or Hulu. Bing forms such an important part of the Windows 8.1 experience that you won't even be able to switch the default setting to Google. Microsoft is clearly betting big on this function.
Synchronization Across PC, Tablet, And Phone
Previously with Windows 8, users could use SkyDrive via the Metro screen, but only to access files already uploaded. You couldn't add or sync up with new files. That all changes with Windows 8.1, which comes with a SkyDrive experience built-in. With information stored in the Cloud, even if you get a new computer or tablet, simply logging into your Microsoft account will restore all your settings, history, and programs. Even the new Internet Explorer 11 will allow users to sync tabs across Windows devices, meaning you can start reading something at work, continue doing so on your Windows Phone, and finish it off at home on your tablet or laptop.
Of course, that means Windows Phones are going to need a similar Windows 8.1 update. But Microsoft isn't talking about that just yet.
Microsoft's app ecosystem is a work on progress, but the company is making things better with Windows 8.1 by adding a few useful programs. We already knew about the Calculator, Alarm Clock, and Sound Recorder apps, but there are a couple more included, too. One is called Health & Fitness, which counts calories and tracks your weight loss in the Cloud, and another is called Food & Drink, which includes recipes and shopping lists. It even features some Galaxy-inspired gesture controls, meaning you can flip through a recipe book even when your hands are dirty.
There are even more additions than the ones mentioned here that people will enjoy, like improved app snapping and multitasking abilities (you can even snap up to four different apps onto the screen depending on the display's resolution), but will they be enough to get Windows 8 out of an increasingly sticky "failure" narrative? That's a question we can't answer just yet, but Microsoft definitely seems like it's on the right track.