Windows 8.1 is better, but will consumers finally switch?

For Microsoft, Windows 8 is a necessary evil. The operating system has two main purposes: to usher the software giant into the modern mobile computing era and, at the same time, to get existing users on board with the changes on the new platform. So far, it is not difficult to see how the OS (and, by implication, Microsoft) has failed on both counts: its tablet market share is low and the growth of Windows 7 is higher than its own. Remember that Windows 8 is close to being a year-old while Windows 7 will soon have its fourth anniversary.

Despite what some might believe, Microsoft really had no other option but to bring something completely new to the table. It does not take long to realize that Windows 8 has been a step in the right direction, as Windows 7 was primarily designed for devices prior to the tablet era. But despite being well-intended, Microsoft has been facing an ongoing backlash over the efficacy of the new approach, which has led to severely crippled chances for mass market appeal. That is a place where no company wants to be, especially in a period of transition. So, as a result, the software giant is responding to the criticism with Windows 8.1, that now has, among other purposes, a different task: to change people's perception of its predecessor.

The Baseline

Here is what Windows 8.1 is up against, in order to change the bad rep that Windows 8 now has among most consumers.

For Windows users, the reasons for the bad rep center on the removal of the traditional Start menu and the introduction of the new user interface that has a clear touch focus. The latter does not seem appropriate for non-touchscreen equipped devices, which is what most users own. It is hardly a surprise that there are folks who loathe these major changes and, as a result, they want nothing to do with anything past Windows 7. I believe they lead to a different experience that is neither better not worse, but I likely am in the minority. Adjusting to change and embracing it is a difficult thing to do and most users seem to avoid this altogether.

For those who are Android or iOS tablet users, Windows 8 does not offer compelling-enough reasons to warrant a platform switch, as it has yet to reach the point of maturity. It is difficult to fight against the two most popular mobile platforms with a first operating system release, unconvincing devices and a pitiful app selection.

The Convincing Game

For those who already use Windows 8, Windows 8.1 will do nothing to change how they feel about the foundation. The latest release will be offered as a free upgrade, after the consumer launch later this month, and likely all users will embrace it as soon as possible. Windows 8.1 will polish the rough edges of its predecessor, so if you are content with what the former offers now there is a very good chance that you will love what is coming. The reason I am mentioning this is that those who have embraced Windows 8 and will upgrade to Windows 8.1 are likely to tell their friends about their experience and make them (re)consider switching to the latter OS, as is is no longer a diamond in the rough. The word of mouth may have a slight positive effect in the long run.

The trick is convincing those who use Windows 7, Windows Vista and Windows XP, as well as rival operating systems from Apple and Google, to switch to Windows 8.1. The problem here is that Windows 8 already created a very strong impression on those users, that has lead to a love it or hate it response to the OS. And it is obvious that more people appear to be in the hate it camp than in the other. They are basically the target market of the new OS. Sadly, for Microsoft, changing their perception, for the better, will not be easy.

Microsoft has to convince those folks of the value of Windows 8.1. This is an uphill battle when the whole benefit of the OS, which should theoretically be the Modern UI, is rendered useless by Microsoft itself and other major software developers. Office -- the company's popular suite and other best-known software -- still runs only on the Desktop side, for instance. And the apps available for the Modern UI offer no real value -- like major exclusive features -- over their Desktop counterparts, in traditional PC environments. Skype is a good example of this as the Desktop app is more feature-rich (includes Facebook chat support, for instance) than the Modern UI app. Windows 8.1 looks to be crippled by the companies and software that should make it more popular.

It's not a far-fetched scenario to believe that users of older Windows versions will struggle to see the benefits of a new Windows release, once again. Why upgrade if the best software is still on the Desktop side right now? Will that change? It probably will, but until then paying $120 for the base Windows 8.1 version or $200 for Windows 8.1 Pro, to upgrade, does not seem like a logical step.

This is really a sad outcome for Microsoft, seeing as Windows 8.1 has received more positive feedback so far than Windows 8 ever did. The software giant listened to what its customers said they want, which includes a more intuitive Modern UI and more capable Modern UI apps. I believe the new Start button will do wonders in increasing the usage of the controversial UI, and the apps that are available for it now showcase a clear departure from the limited feature sets of their predecessors, as well as boost satisfaction levels among users who wish to avoid it. There are also multitasking improvements, as Windows 8.1 can now show more than two apps at the same time in the Modern UI, which should come in handy for tablet users but will likely not convince die-hard Desktop fans that this is the right approach for them. The new Modern UI, its new built-in apps and new configuration options are miles ahead of their predecessors, but will users of older Windows versions take notice and switch? I doubt it, at least for the foreseeable future.

There is a chance that a (small) part of those who have refused to upgrade so far will do it once Windows 8.1 arrives, because they want the non-Modern UI benefits (and there are quite a few of them as Derrick Wlodarz explains) and because the OS finally allows to bypass the Modern UI's main screen and make the experience more similar to Windows 7 and that of its predecessors. The question is just how many users will actually do this? My guess is not that many, with the associated cost being one of the reasons.

A good chunk of Windows 8.1's success will come from sales of new devices. In this scenario users will have to keep an open mind in order to try the new OS and not downgrade shortly after. The buying experience will contribute greatly to avoiding the least optimistic outcome, and it's up to Microsoft and its retail partners to inform users of how they can actually tailor Windows 8.1 to suit their needs. Here, the improvements added to the OS, mainly the new configuration options for the Start screen and the presence of the Start button, could come into play, and have a major effect on how folks see Windows 8.1 as a daily driver.

I believe that Windows 8.1 has a significantly higher potential of convincing Android and iOS tablet users to switch, compared to its predecessor, if the price of the slates is right. Microsoft's new Surface 2 lineup is a good example of how not to price Windows 8.1/RT 8.1 tablets -- on par with the flagship Android tablets and iPads and way higher than most Windows-based laptops. Also, the availability of smaller form factors -- like 7-inch and 8-inch configurations -- is crucial in boosting market share, as current predictions show smaller tablets taking over the market in a few years. Bigger is not better, and this is a preference shift that Microsoft's hardware partners will have to take into consideration.

Android and iOS tablet users might be easier to convince since they are already running mobile apps on their devices, which is what the Modern UI basically offers now, and they are used to not having legacy Windows software-like levels of functionality. As long as they do not value having the latest apps or the most popular apps over the features that Windows 8.1 has then the OS has a good chance of making a real dent in the tablet market. The new slew of changes will also have an impact for tablet use. Coupled with the ever-increasing popularity of slates, it could lead to a significantly higher market share for Microsoft, as long as the price is not ridiculously high and smaller form factors are available. The app problem remains one of the biggest issues that the software giant has to address, starting with its own apps, in order to give Windows 8.1 a real fighting chance.

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