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Monday, June 3, 2013

With Windows 8.1, a New Start That Looks Familiar

Yes, Microsoft is bringing back some comforting hallmarks of its Windows operating system, including the Start menu. No, it is not chucking out the modern, touch-friendly, tile-based look of Windows 8, the new version of the software that has sent much of the PC industry, many pundits and some computer shoppers into a tizzy.

That’s the short version of what’s coming in Windows 8.1, an update to Windows 8 that will be out by the end of the year. In one of the first demonstrations of the operating system to an outsider, Microsoft executives showed off a bevy of changes the company has made to the operating system, a number of which were in direct response to some of the more pointed criticisms the operating system received from users after coming out last fall.

Hints from Microsoft in recent weeks about those changes, along with a slump in PC sales that analysts believe was worsened by Windows 8, have led to heated speculation that Microsoft was preparing to backpedal from the most radical changes it made in Windows 8. Not true, executives said.

“This isn’t a U-turn at all,” said Antoine Leblond, corporate vice president of Windows program management. “We really believe in the direction we started on with Windows 8.”

Indeed, Windows 8.1 looks virtually indistinguishable from Windows 8 in many respects. People who dislike its colorful mosaic of tiles will not find much in the new software to change their minds.

That’s because it is unlikely, as a practical matter, that people will be able to entirely escape the tile-based interface in Windows 8.1, even though Microsoft is making it easier to avoid it. As expected, the new operating system will allow people to configure the software so that they start in desktop mode â€" the “classic” Windows interface with a taskbar at the bottom of the screen, a background image and applications with traditional menus â€" whenever they boot up their PCs.

Microsoft didn’t allow this with Windows 8. Even if their destination was desktop mode, where Office and millions of legacy Windows applications run, Windows 8 users had to pass through the tile screen, an inconvenience to many. It’s noteworthy that Microsoft will still put users in the tile interface by default when they start up their machines.

Microsoft is also reincarnating the Start button with Windows 8.1, though it won’t behave exactly like the Windows Start buttons of yore, the primary way Windows users found and launched applications for decades.

There will be a Windows flag icon in the bottom left corner of the taskbar in the Windows 8.1 desktop. But clicking â€" or, if you have a touch device, tapping â€" the button will simply return you to the tile-based interface, from which you can launch apps. People can get to a more traditional looking menu of applications from the Start button, but they have to configure the system to do that.

What these changes mean is that someone who makes the effort to reconfigure the operating system will be able to spend most of their time in the classic desktop interface. In practice, Microsoft will keep nudging them in the direction of the tile-based interface at every opportunity because it believes that is the future of Windows.

The company thinks most devices are moving inexorably in the direction of touch screens, including laptop computers and desktops. The tile interface of Windows 8 and its successors is how the company is preparing for that future.

If developers want to distribute applications through Microsoft’s app store for Windows, they have to write them so they run through the modern Windows interface. Even if a customer only wants the old-fashioned Windows, they will be bounced into the new interface anytime they launch Netflix and any other modern app.

Over time, Microsoft believes users will become more comfortable in the modern interface. But it doesn’t want to rush them if they’re unready.

“There’s an opportunity here to help people feel more oriented if they don’t feel oriented,” said Jensen Harris, partner director of program management at Microsoft.

There are a variety of other changes in Windows 8.1 that are likely to receive less notice. People using Windows 8.1 in the modern interface will be able to have four different windows open at once, rather than two, which will make it easier for multitaskers to jump among different applications. A new built-in search function will automatically create a slick-looking mash-up of different types of data relevant to a search term, including songs, videos, photos and Wikipedia entries.

The underlying bet Microsoft is making with Windows has not changed, though. Unlike Apple, which has one operating system for the iPad and one for computers, Microsoft believes the software that powers both types of devices should be the same.

“The role of Windows is to unify that experience,” Mr. Leblond said.