Microsoft will renounce its "make-them-eat-Metro" strategy in an update for Windows 8.1 slated to ship this spring, if leaked preliminary builds reflect the final product.
According to Wzor, a Russian site that regularly gets its hands on unauthorized builds, Windows 8.1 Update 1 -- a refresh of last fall's revamp of the original Windows 8 -- will enable the "boot to desktop" setting, currently an option, as the default, bypassing the "Metro" Start screen and the flat user interface (UI) that relies on colorful tiles and runs mobile-style apps rather than traditional Windows applications.
The boot-to-desktop setting debuted in Windows 8.1, one of several changes Microsoft made to appease customers who struggled to navigate Metro apps and the Start screen with keyboard- and mouse-controlled hardware, which continues to dominate the PC market and makes up nearly all its installed base.
Then, boot to desktop was an option users had to manually trigger.
If the final Update 1 switches on the skirt-Start screen feature, it will mark a major repudiation of Microsoft's original game plan for Windows 8, analysts said.
"This as a milestone in the proof that the strategy didn't work," said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. "But for anyone following this closely, they would have expected it. It's for business, plain and simple. Business put up a brick-wall front and told Microsoft, 'If you don't fix this, we're not going to buy Windows 8.'"
The strategy Moorhead referred to was to force Metro, the label for the touch-and-tile UI, on every Windows 8 user by making them start each session at the Start screen, and if nothing else see it before they shifted to the classic desktop. Microsoft hoped that customers would recognize the benefits of its touch and app models, then take to new touch-enabled PCs or tablets. In turn, the idea went, those sales would push developers into quickly creating a massive app market -- a virtuous cycle, at least in theory.
Well before Windows 8's launch, Microsoft in general, its CEO-for-now Steve Ballmer specifically, promised that the millions of existing PCs as well as every new system sold would be a candidate for the OS, creating an instant market for apps.
In October 2012, shortly before Windows 8 went on sale, Ballmer made one last-minute pitch and promise. "There will be customers coming and looking for apps. That I can assure you," Ballmer told developers. "It's going to create a heck of a lot of opportunity for folks in this room to make millions."
That was predicated on the start at the Start screen. In any case, it hasn't happened as Ballmer hoped.
Instead, consumers increasingly turned their backs on traditional PCs, opting instead to spend their money on smartphones and tablets, the latter substituting for or augmenting older personal computers. Most of their money went towards Android- and iOS-powered devices, ignoring Windows tablets, which continue to struggle for more than a single-digit share.
And businesses, while continuing to purchase PCs -- their buys have kept the industry from even more horrific declines -- ignored Windows 8 and standardized on its predecessor, Windows 7. While their reasons for shunning Windows 8 were many, most detested the Metro UI as disruptive to productivity, and clamored for a return of the desktop to its primary position in the Windows hierarchy.
Microsoft, faced with a repeat of the setback that was Vista, has been accommodating them in fitful steps, first with Windows 8.1's return of a pseudo Start button and the boot to desktop option, and with Update 1, reportedly several more, including boot to desktop by default, an on-screen power button within the Start screen, and the ability to "pin" Metro apps to the classic desktop's taskbar.
Windows 9, now seemingly set for a Q2 2015 debut, will make more such moves, including a Start menu of sorts and allowing Metro apps to run in resizable frames on the desktop.
But if Microsoft sets boot to desktop as on with Update 1, that decision will, strategically at least, be the biggest by far.
"Microsoft really dug a big hole for themselves," said David Smith, of Gartner, in an interview Friday, referring to the firm's approach with Windows 8. "They have to dig themselves out of that hole, including making some fundamental changes to Windows 8. They need to accelerate that and come up with another path [for Windows]."