Technologizer

Windows 8.1 Is the First Rough Draft of ‘One Microsoft’

How a theoretically minor upgrade portends an entire company's new direction.

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Microsoft

You can’t judge a book by its cover — or a software product by its version number. That’s always been particularly true of Microsoft Windows. The most famous releases sport plenty of visible change and important-sounding names such as Windows 3.0, Windows 95 and Windows Vista. But the versions of Windows that do the most to improve the lives of people who use them are often those whose very names tell you that they’re about refinement rather than revolution: Windows for Workgroups 3.11, Windows 98 Second Edition, Windows XP SP3.

Today, Microsoft is releasing Windows 8.1, a free update arriving slightly less than a year after Windows 8 did. (Windows 8 users can download from the Windows Store.) It’s another one of those versions of Windows whose significance belies the version number. That’s in part because it polishes up a lot of things about Windows 8 that needed polishing. But it’s also because Windows 8.1, more than most Windows updates, is a preview of where the whole Microsoft mothership is headed.

What was most important in Windows 8 stared you right in the face. It was the radically new user interface — originally known as Metro, a moniker it’s been unable to shake — which blew up three decades of Windows conventions in favor of something more modern and touch-centric. It was such an epoch-shifting gambit that it’s not the least bit surprising that the world is still figuring out how to react to it.
It’s also no shocker that there was a need for a Windows 8.1 — an update with a meaningful number of features that might have been in Windows 8, but weren’t. “I always love that question — ‘why can’t I have everything now?’” says Gabe Aul, director of product management for Windows and such a Microsoft veteran that he worked on the aforementioned Windows for Workgroups, which shipped in 1993. “Some things take time to do.”

With a look and feel that aren’t a major departure from Windows 8, Windows 8.1 is about more subtle change. Everyone fixates on the fact that Microsoft brought back the Start button, but that’s only a medium-sized whoop, especially since it takes you to the new user interface that many Start-button loyalists still regard warily.

No, the single most significant thing about 8.1 may be the way it deeply embeds multiple Microsoft products — like SkyDrive, Bing and Xbox — into the Windows experience. They’re there as services that help nudge Windows, one of the world’s most venerable pieces of conventional software, further into the cloud. That matters in and of itself. But it’s also among the first tangible results of “One Microsoft,” the company’s attempt to behave like a single focused, fast-moving team that happens to be rather large — rather than the disparate assemblage of self-interested fiefdoms it’s often been accused of being.

Windows 8.1 isn’t a product of the massive reorganization Steve Ballmer announced in a memo on July 11. Work on the update began in earnest right after Windows 8 shipped on October 26, 2012, and ended less than six weeks after Microsoft employees found Ballmer’s missive in their inboxes. It’s the next version of Windows — whatever it is, and whenever it arrives — that will have been developed under the new corporate structure, which, among other things, creates unified operating-system and device groups.
Yet Windows 8.1 is very much in sync with the overarching goals of the reorg as Ballmer described them:

We are rallying behind a single strategy as one company — not a collection of divisional strategies. Although we will deliver multiple devices and services to execute and monetize the strategy, the single core strategy will drive us to set shared goals for everything we do. We will see our product line holistically, not as a set of islands. We will allocate resources and build devices and services that provide compelling, integrated experiences across the many screens in our lives, with maximum return to shareholders. All parts of the company will share and contribute to the success of core offerings, like Windows, Windows Phone, Xbox, Surface, Office 365 and our EA offer, Bing, Skype, Dynamics, Azure and our servers. All parts of the company will contribute to activating high-value experiences for our customers.

Now, Microsoft smooshing together products, platforms and brands is nothing new. (Exhibit A: the legal case known as United States v. Microsoft, set into motion when Windows first got joined at the hip with Internet Explorer.) But for years, it usually did so by treating everything, reflexively, as an extension of Windows. That led to such exercises in muddy branding as Bing’s predecessor, the Google competitor called Windows Live Search — which didn’t seem to have anything to do with Windows.
This time it’s different. Windows 8.1 flips the proposition: Now Windows feels like an extension of everything else Microsoft is doing.
A few examples:

  • It’s now as simple to store stuff in SkyDrive, Microsoft’s online storage service, as on your hard drive. Windows 8.1 caches SkyDrive data so it’s available when you’re not connected to the web, and uses Smart Files to conserve space, especially on devices with limited storage, such as tablets.
  • Bing Smart Search melds results from your hard drive with ones from Microsoft’s search engine — and, when you search for something music-related, from the Xbox Music service.
  • The Mail app borrows features from Outlook.com webmail, including Sweep, which lets you train it how to automatically handle messages of a certain type — such as ones from a particular person — as they arrive.
  • Integration with the upcoming Xbox One will let you start watching a video on the console or a Windows 8.1 PC, pause it, then pick up where you left off on the other device.

In many ways, these features are the culmination of an effort to blur together software and services that began years ago, after Microsoft shipped the good-but-resolutely-traditional Windows 7. “A lot of it, foundationally, was in Windows 8,” Chris Jones, corporate vice president for operating system services, says of the technologies that make it possible. But the Windows 8.1 incarnations of services such as SkyDrive and Bing are more sophisticated, and they feel more like operating-system features than their relatively superficial Windows 8 predecessors.

One glance at Windows 8′s all-new touch interface told you that Microsoft was trying to reinvent its 28-year-old operating system for the age of smartphones and tablets. But Windows 8.1′s emphasis on services reflects the modern era just as much, and Microsoft readily acknowledges that Windows is learning tricks from newer platforms.

“It used to be that what you had on your hard drive was bigger than what you could have in the cloud,” says Jones, speaking of the SkyDrive integration. “Now what you have in the cloud might be bigger. It’s very similar to the shift that happened with e-mail. You started connecting your phone to a very large cloud inbox.”

Much more than in Windows 8, the new features are also beginning to set up Windows to become something that can get better on an ongoing basis, more like a web service than a piece of boxed software. Over time, for example, Bing Smart Search can provide more and more customized results for different types of content, without any software upgrade. We can ship updates to the search experience every day,” says Kieran Snyder, a group program manager for Bing who was formerly part of the Windows team. “Having been with Windows for seven or eight years, that’s not something I thought we would see Windows embrace.”

Just from a branding standpoint, it’s fascinating to see Microsoft bring its other properties into Windows in such a prominent way. In Microsoftland, search is now synonymous with Bing; both gaming and music are universally tied to Xbox. It’s very much an intentional strategy, and strikingly different from the days when the Windows brand trumped everything else. “Search is one of the great unifiers across devices,” says Snyder of Bing’s high-profile place within Windows 8.1. “We do see value to coalescing around a great search brand.”

And then there’s that “One Microsoft” question: Is Windows 8.1 the product of a Microsoft that’s better at cross-team collaboration than it’s been in the past? If so, did that result in a better operating system?
The people who I spoke with at the company say that they were working hard to be “One Microsoft” even before the reorganization formalized the vision. Already, they contend, there’s been a massive increase in the quantity and quality of dialogue between people who in the past would have focused on their own priorities and checked in with each other only once in a while.

“We talk to Kieran daily,” says Aul about his Bing colleague Snyder. In the past, he says, communications between the operating-system and search areas were handled with “a group-sync meeting with the Bing leadership team once a month.”

“It was a pretty new thing to have everyone in the same room designing,” says Snyder of the Windows 8.1 development process. Before, she says, separate teams would develop bits and pieces of a new product autonomously, then try to retrofit them after the fact. Which led to colleagues having to tell each other things like “This isn’t right for touch, you need to go back and redesign it.”

Then there’s the team responsible for Microsoft’s Surface tablets. They’re in constant contact with other groups, too: For instance, the improved camera in the new Surface needed new software. But as usual when discussing Surface, Microsoft is careful to say that it’s not favoring its own PC hardware arm over the likes of HP, Lenovo and Dell. “The teams have worked together very closely together, while still trying to maintain a relationship that we’d be comfortable having with other [manufacturers],” says Aul.

Of course, it’s tough for anyone outside Microsoft to have an informed opinion of what’s going on in some conference rooms in Redmond. But even for us outsiders, it’s pretty obvious that the company is making a good-faith effort to make its major platforms and services — like Windows, Windows Phone, Xbox and Bing — make sense as a matched set, with a single design aesthetic and many commonalities in features. Getting everyone marching in the same direction might still be tough, but at least it’s clear that the company has one destination in mind for everybody.

The more that Microsoft’s various groups have common interests, the more that the reorg’s emphasis on teamwork might leave everybody’s skills rubbing off on everybody else in a mutually beneficial way. Snyder says that’s already happening: “Bing has gotten much better at understanding modern design. Windows has learned much more about machine learning.”

Even if you’re impressed by what’s new in Windows 8.1, as I largely am, there’s only so much you can divine about Microsoft’s future from its digital tea leaves. The company, after all, is about to undergo even more epochal change as it gets a new CEO and swallows up a gigantic hardware maker. The company still has to contend with a PC business that’s in decline, and Windows Phone 8, though nice, remains in distant third place in a smartphone market that may only have room for two big winners. Still, this update is the most tangible evidence so far of what “One Microsoft” is all about  – and it would be nice to think that it’s a rough draft of bigger things to come.

9 comments
DalVI
DalVI

damn . . #Windows8.1 Pro upgrade is not available as an ISO to non-enterprise users . . that's how #Microsoft reward the early adapters!  . . INGRATO !!! 

ferval
ferval

This is an Operating System that the NSA will love, all your searches, videos, etc. beam to bing, xbox, skydrive, Microsoft should be paid by NSA. Also your ISP could sell these information to research companies, like some due for their free hostspots.


The other point that I want to make it's not a new strategy, it's the same old Microsoft strategy to kill competition, you like google, nop, search with bing, you want to use DropBox, nop, use skydrive, etc. Probably I don't now what I am talking about, I have not read the API of Windows 8.1 yet, but I haven't see that you can repleace this services with better providers.

Just my 2 cents.

LurkingGrue
LurkingGrue

Still not impressed with Windows 8.X.

Hate the hideous font rendering along with bad contrast (Please fix Cleartype!!!)

I was far less full screen software

No more horizontal scrolling!!

Also please take out the damn full screen start menu in Server 2012!!! The thing is unusable over RDP.

tristan.vaillancourt
tristan.vaillancourt

I found WIndows 8 to be just fine.  The 8.1 Service pack is slick!!

Lot of people seem to resist chance so much.  

It's just an OS GUI people.  It still does the same thing. I have been developping apps for windows for almost 20 years now. Wouldn't you think that I would be resistant to change, more so than the next person? I have been using the Start menu as much as any body else has.

Let me tell you this much:  I don't miss the start button at all. There are several ways to skin a cat.

Metro is slick and super easy to use. 

Full screen browsing, smooth touch response, is great.

What is wrong with you naysayers? Come on folks, if you can get used to IPuds and Android tablets, what exactly is your problem with Windows 8?

Office 2012 is slick, Visio 2012/13 is slick, the Mail program is super clean and easy to use. Social Networking integration is slick. SkyDrive integration is slick.

Multi-monitor support is fine, nothing wrong with it.  

I don't think the problem is Windows 8.

I think people are afraid of change.

Microsoft can't keep on giving you your silly little toolbar buttons, because they are too small! You can't right click on tablets either.

Get with the program people.  

Touch screen tablets are here to stay, and Microsoft isn't run by fools.

Now go get yourself a tissue, wipe the snot off your upper lip, and stop yer whining. 

Err, I mean ...

Now now little guy, Windows is still here, I know it hurts, and you are sad and confused, but it just had to change a bit to support touch panels. Here's a cookie.



ramtodatry
ramtodatry

Unfortunately, it will take Microsoft and a lot of other software developers to realize one thing.  You cannot take out a feature that is convenient, makes a lot of sense and extremely useful; unless it is being super-ceded by something better.  Take for example the Tool-bar in Windows-XP; what happened to it in later versions of windows?  Why does a User have to click twice, rather than click once.  This "problem" happened inside the same group that developed the Windows Explorer between XP to Vista to Windows-7.  Not even across groups within the company.  Good luck, when big software companies decide what good is for the User and shove it down your throat... and you have no one to complain to... just lump it...right?

IntangibleGuy
IntangibleGuy

Overzealous and over ambitious.

The new strategy is way to complex and tries to bring together things that simply don't belong together.

Win8 and the Surface product line are parade examples of confusing products with no clear direction and usage scenario.

And it seems MS is about to even compound that issue. Contrary to this ominous strategy Apple keeps it low and simple. Actually Apple products almost give the impression to be designed for mentally handicapped persons. Even a preschooler gets it after a few minutes.

MS would be well advised to follow Apples example in that regard. A product has to be so simple that  everyone understands what's it good for.

NZAircraftFan
NZAircraftFan

I am a windows 7 and until something much better comes along I no reason to change my mind . I never used 8 and I don't think I ever will I also never used bing and think that embeding it into windows 8.1 will upset alot of 8 users who like me prefer to use google as there brower. But we will I am sure

LurkingGrue
LurkingGrue

@tristan.vaillancourt The new version of Office isn't slick.  They removed Clear type and set the contrast to a point that will make older eyes bleed.

I couldn't handle more than 10 minutes before my eyes hurt and found no way of setting a reasonable color scheme.   

Android is fine on a tablet and in the bathroom but on a desktop this stuff is just painful.

devicemanager
devicemanager

@NZAircraftFan 

You can continue to use Chrome in 8.1, and it will even run in "desktop" mode if you are against the Metro interface.