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10 factors that hobbled Windows 8 and what Windows 8.1 might do to fix them

Microsoft is making a big effort this week to resuscitate Windows 8 with a preview of the first major upgrade to the operating system since it launched last October, but it has a lot to overcome.

Some of it was of Microsoft's own doing by either overreaching in its effort to create an entirely new operating system or by ignoring what customers wanted. But some of it was beyond the company's control and Windows 8 just fell victim.

[MORE:Microsoft: Desperately wooing developers with new app features, gifts 

OPTIMISM:Ballmer: Happiness is a Windows 8 device with a touchscreen 

RELATED:Gartner to businesses: Get ready for broad deployment of Windows 8.1]

Here are 10 factors that led to the less than smooth launch of Windows 8 and how they have changed or how Microsoft has taken action to address them:

1. Start button This one is at the top of everybody's list. Anyone who used Windows before Windows 8 loved the Start button, apparently more than Microsoft knew. But since protests about its demise began even before the operating system was generally available, the company should have known and done something about it. Even though it doesn't cripple Windows 8 to lack a Start button, it did help cripple its reputation by giving critics something easy to carp about. With Windows 8.1, it's back.

2. Start menu The Start button of course triggered the start menu, which was the real thing users wanted. The fix in Windows 8.1 is that the button summons a Start screen similar to the Windows 8 Start screen that many people hated. But it can be customized to display a limited number of apps organized by category, latest installed, etc. It remains to be seen whether that's good enough to mollify critics, but it's a lot better than the alternative that came with the initial release of Windows 8.

3. Boot to desktop Many customers especially those without touchscreen devices want their Windows 8 machines to boot directly to the desktop so they can start off right away using mouse and keyboard. They didn't want the added step of finding the desktop access with their mouse and making the extra click. This has been remedied in Windows 8.1.

4. Lack of hardware systems Windows 8 is designed for touch. It's that simple. Despite what Microsoft said about it last year being a blend of the desktop and tablet interfaces that brought the best of both worlds. If customers were to embrace the radically new operating system, they needed to play with it on hardware that showed it to its best advantage. Microsoft and its partners just didn't deliver it, and so uptake lagged. With new, lower power chips coming out, availability of touchscreen supplies and OEM interest, Microsoft is promising a flow of appropriate devices to start over the coming months. This is still a bunch of promises, but at least there really are a range of devices available now and perhaps more to come at low prices.

5. Dearth of apps In order to make people learn a new operating system and an unfamiliar touch interface, a set of compelling applications needed to drive demand, but the apps just weren't there. Microsoft has been hammering away to get developers on board writing these apps, and the Microsoft Store is about to clear 100,000 applications in its inventory. To its credit the company has held two developers' conferences in less than a year, giving developers free Windows 8 devices so they can experiment with the operating system and tried to sweeten the reimbursement they get for sales. But it's a work in progress. Developers tend to gravitate to the larger potential markets, and Windows 8 uptake so far  hasn't been so overwhelming that they're throwing themselves into Windows 8 app development.

6. Apps for business Windows 8 supports all the business apps that could run on Windows 7, but that's not a compelling reason for them to buy Windows 8. They need core line-of-business apps that not only are written for the touch interface but that also perform tasks better or perform new tasks that existing Windows 7 apps don't. Again, that's a work in progress.

7. Timing In addition to the supply problems, Microsoft missed the 2012 holiday season because the release of Windows 8 at the end of October really didn't give consumers enough time to build up enthusiasm for choosing Windows 8 computers as gifts. While Windows 8 is taking some of the blame for it, the sale of PCs in general has also been dropping and took a downward turn right about the time Windows 8 was available. So even if it didn't have other problems, demand was softening. With the advent of more Windows 8 tablets and combination devices, Microsoft may be able to grab more of the customers migrating from PCs to tablets.

8. A user-learnable but not intuitive user interface Once up to speed on Windows 8, users can speed through it using the touchscreen, but there's a learning curve. Who would think to flick on the right side of the screen to find a set of system tools called charms that helps them navigate? Who would think to flick on the left side to find what other apps are running besides the one on screen? Just about nobody. The Windows 8 user interface takes some getting used to and given all the other complaints about it, the unfamiliar interface was just one more excuse not to try it. The user interface still represents a learning curve, and there's nothing Microsoft can do about that. But if apps and devices that make the OS hum are available at the right price, customers may be more willing to try it.

9. Just two apps on screen at once Microsoft made a big deal of Windows 8's ability to snap an application on one third of the screen so it was visible while another app occupied the other two thirds. Users could then snap back and forth between them. But after years of Windows operating systems that allowed as many open Windows as users wanted, that wasn't enough. Windows 8.1 fixes that with unrestricted apps on screen.

10. Supply of parts Late last year and early this year there was a scarcity of touchscreens needed to make optimal Windows 8 devices. This supply chain problem has resolved itself.

Read more about software in Network World's Software section.


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