Windows 8.1 Still Alienates Users

Wayne Rash is senior correspondent for eWEEK and a writer with 30 years of experience. His career includes IT work for the US Air Force.

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Even if Window 8 is updated, Wayne Rash still thinks Microsoft is dumb to force users onto a novelty platform

The good news is that there’s finally a refresh of Windows 8 coming down the pike. The bad news is that the changes you almost certainly want won’t be there.

Yes, Microsoft is bringing back the Start Button, but the Start Menu that lives behind it on all previous versions of Windows won’t be there. Instead the Start Button will simply lead you to the Start Screen, that tiled interface you probably don’t like.

Mouse friendly, user hostile?

Windows 8 TilesWhile Microsoft is planning to make Windows 8 more mouse-and-keyboard friendly with version 8.1, it’s still going to be a touch-screen interface jammed into a mouse-and-keyboard environment. If you don’t like the Windows 8 interface now, this isn’t going to be your salvation.

Microsoft’s Windows Program Management Vice President Antoine Leblond explained in his rundown of Windows 8.1 features that the new version of Windows will be able to boot into alternate screens, but the only screen he actually mentioned was the screen that shows the icons of available applications, which is what you see when you invoke the Search charm in the current iteration of Windows 8. He specifically does not say you will be able to boot directly into the Desktop.

This brings us back to the Start Button. What people liked about the Start Button in Windows 7, which had reached a nicely refined stage, wasn’t the button itself. It was the Start Menu, which allowed users to go directly to the applications they wanted quickly and conveniently.

Windows 7  kept track of what applications you used most often and moved them into the Start Menu for you. Some of the features of the Start Menu have been taken over by the Charms Bar, such as the ability to run the Control Panel, but even here it’s been made more difficult.

Let’s say, for example, that you want to go to the Network and Sharing Center on Windows 7. You do this in the following sequence: Start > Control Panel > Network and Sharing Center. That’s three steps. With Windows 8 on a standard PC, you use a longer sequence: Desktop > Charms Bar > Settings > Control Panel > Network and Sharing Center. That’s five steps. Unfortunately, while you can invoke the Charms Bar from the Start Screen, you can’t get to the Control Panel from there.

Microsoft hasn’t thought it through

This is typical of the lack of thought in the Windows 8 interface design. Even used with a touch-screen computer, navigating the dual-personality of the user interface is never easier, and frequently harder than it was with Windows 7. Yes, on a touch-screen computer the Start Screen is intuitive and it responds to touch nicely. But you still have to go to the Desktop for too many things for it to be a completely touch interface.

I noted the complexity of the touch interface the first time I looked at Windows 8 back in March 2012, and it hasn’t improved since. While using the Windows 8 interface with a mouse and keyboard is certainly possible, it’s not as easy as it should be. This is made worse by forcing users into a more complex two-screen interface that is far less than intuitive. Why can’t you do everything from either the Start Screen or the Desktop? The reason is that Microsoft’s designers chose not to let you.

Fortunately, there are a few solutions to one of the biggest problems, the lack of the Start Menu. Classic Shell provides a free, Open-Source Start Button and menu for Windows. Pokki provides the Start Button and menu, and it supports the “Modern” apps that you got from the Microsoft store as well. Start8 was one of the first Windows 8 Start Button replacements, and while it’ll cost you five bucks, it’s worth it. There are several more that you can find using your favorite search utility.

The good bits of Windows 8.1

Fortunately, not everything in Windows 8.1 is a disappointment. Internet Explorer 11 fixes most of what was wrong with IE10, including better support for tabs and an address bar that’s visible all the time. Some of the original Windows apps are back, including the Calculator, an improved Photo and Camera app and something called the File Explorer, which presumably was changed to keep people from confusing it with IE, even though it’s been around as Windows Explorer forever.

In reality, the biggest problem with Windows 8 wasn’t the software itself—although there were some serious gaps—but the fact that Microsoft decided to effectively abandon its existing user base. Windows 8 was launched into a world with something like a billion and a quarter Windows computers already in use. If it was going to take over, it required a change to the way all of those users interacted with those computers.

Windows 8 was totally new and it wasn’t as good for those users with existing PCs. While Microsoft’s desire to keep up with the mobile revolution is understandable, it needed to accommodate those billions of people who had learned to use the previous versions and who weren’t planning on buying a touch-screen computer. Worse, Microsoft made this change in a world where touch-screen computers were more of a novelty than the rule. In other words, if you didn’t want a novelty for a computer, you were left behind.

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Originally published on eWeek.