San Francisco -- Windows 8 on a touchscreen device makes users happier than Microsoft’s currently most popular operating system, Windows 7, CEO Steve Ballmer says.
That’s a somewhat surprising result of Microsoft customer research considering that Windows 8 is much criticized for its shortcomings, particularly that it lacks many of the most popular desktop features of Windows 7.
Ballmer made the revelation during his keynote presentation at the Build 2013 conference for application developers at which Microsoft executives outlined new features in Windows 8.1 the first major upgrade of the operating system that launched last fall. Windows 8.1 seeks to restore many of the features the initial version of Windows 8 took away.
Ballmer was admitting that Windows 8 was released at a time when hardware that would show it off to best advantage – touchscreen computers - was unavailable. Now, though, many new devices with a variety of configurations – tablets, mini-tablets, convertibles, all-in-ones, ultrabooks – are shipping. “You will see literally an outpouring of new computers that are notebooks yet have touch,” he says.
And traditional PC laptops and desktops with touch will also prove valuable, he says.
His remarks came as Microsoft released the preview version of Windows 8.1, whose major new features Microsoft had already outlined.
Windows 8.1 does some backtracking to make up for some of the least popular changes made when moving from Windows 7. Chief among these are restoring the Start button and enabling boot-to-desktop rather than boot-to-Start screen.
The new start button calls up a modified Windows 8 Start screen that can be configured to each user’s liking. So it can show all apps, most used apps, apps ranked by installation date or separated into categories. This is different from the Windows 7 Start menu which displays a select few apps and tools.
The Windows 8.1 Start screen itself is modified so a flick upwards from the bottom of the displays produces a new screen containing tiles for all the apps on the device.
These concessions may make Windows 8.1 more popular with businesses because most business apps for Windows were written for traditional keyboard-and-mouse devices. Business users with such devices reported a hard time figuring out how to navigate Windows 8.
Ballmer described the Windows 8.1 changes as a re-blend of the Modern touch user interface and the traditional desktop in order to make it easier to start applications the way users were familiar with.
Julie Larson-Green, Microsoft's head of Windows, says Windows 8.1 also has a new Start screen just for small devices that appears similar to the start screen for Windows Phone, with fewer tiles than are displayed on a larger Windows 8 device.
The on-screen keyboard for small devices has features to make typing easier. For example when suggested word completions appear at the top of the screen, sliding a finger across the spacebar will highlight them one at a time in the direction the finger moves. When the right word is highlighted a tap on the spacebar drops it into the message.
The Windows 8 Email program has been updated in Windows 8.1 with features to clean up the Inbox she says. For example a power panel on the left lists categories such as social, favorites and newsletters. Tapping on any of them displays just the emails associated with those categories. A sweep button can delete all of a category at once, set them aside or delete all but the most recent.
Tim Greene covers Microsoft and unified communications for Network World and writes the Mostly Microsoft blog. Reach him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter@Tim_Greene.