First look at Windows 8.1 -- can it fix a troubled operating system?

Windows 8.1 will do a fine job of smoothing out some of Windows 8's roughest edges, and add some new features that should have been in the operating system in the first place. But can it fix the worst problems of the troubled operating system?

Windows 8.1, as described in a Microsoft blog posting, offers plenty of nice fixes. Search will be improved, aggregating content from multiple sources including the Web, SkyDrive, apps, files, and actions. The SkyDrive app will be made actually useful so that you can easily get access to your SkyDrive files locally, not just in the cloud. PC settings will be accessible from a single location as a native Windows 8 app, rather than having to switch back and forth between the desktop-based Control Panel, and the Windows 8 interface. Internet Explorer 11 will be released, and the terrible Windows 8 native app will finally show open tabs. There will be a version of the Start button, but not the Start Menu. And you'll be able to boot straight to the desktop, or into a view of all of your apps.

All that should prove to be useful. Michael Silver, a Gartner analyst, told Computerworld that Windows 8.1:

"is closer to what they [Microsoft] should have put out as Windows 8.0 and probably closer to what they would have put out if they had had more time."

I can't say that I fully agree with him. Time wasn't the issue with Windows 8's release. its basic design philosophy was flawed. Microsoft decided that it was going to graft a touch-based operating system onto an existing keyboard-and-mouse-based one. Microsoft could easily have included the Windows 8.1 features in Windows 8 at launch if it wanted. But it decided that it was going to force people to move to a touch-based interface, whether they liked it or not, and whether the Windows 8 devices they would be using were suited for touch or not.

The Windows 8.1 changes go partway towards making Windows better suited for those who use traditional computers rather than tablets. But it doesn't fix the basic problem that Windows 8.1 is really two different operating systems designed for two different types of hardware, bolted together uneasily.

When Apple designed the iPad, it used an operating system specifically designed for mobile, touch-based devices, while leaving the Mac OS X operating system intact for traditional computers. That seems to have worked out quite nicely for Apple. Microsoft should have done the same. At least from the initial descriptions, Windows 8.1 doesn't appear to fix that basic problem.

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