Just about one year ago, Microsoft gave us two new operating systems.
One was a new version of Windows: the one for use with mouse and keyboard, the one whose desktop at this moment lights up hundreds of millions of screens, the one with a software library of four million programs.
The other was a new operating system for tablets. It was modeled on Microsoft’s lovely tiled Home screen for Windows Phones: colorful, clear, elegant, filled with fluid touch gestures. You can’t run Photoshop or iTunes or Quicken on it; this new system requires a whole new type of app. Since Microsoft doesn’t have a name for this OS (it abandoned the names Metro and Modern), I call it TileWorld. All of this might have been fine, except for one tragic miscalculation: Microsoft mashed these two new operating systems together into something called Windows 8.
Now you have two Web browsers to learn. Two completely different Help systems. Two (actually three) control panels. Two kinds of programs: the traditional ones, which have menus and overlapping windows, and TileWorld apps, which don’t have either of those things.
Reviewers and PC fans gave Microsoft quite a swat on the nose. PC World wrote that Windows 8 is “not worthwhile” for desktop computer users. PC Magazine: “Too drastic for some.” InformationWeek: “A big flop. Its Frankenstein interface combines two fundamentally incompatible operating systems.”
PC sales plunged 14 percent in the months after Windows 8’s release. The executive who masterminded Windows 8 abruptly left the company.
Microsoft, licking its wounds, spent a year trying to fix Windows 8. On Thursday, you can download the result: Windows 8.1. It’s free to anyone who already has Windows 8, and it will come preinstalled on new computers. Full disclosure: I have written a how-to book on Windows 8 and will be updating it for Windows 8.1.
The changes to TileWorld are nearly endless — and terrific. The anemic, pared-down starter apps, like Photos and Mail, have matured. Now you can edit photos in Photos (not just look at them) and drag e-mail messages into folders. The muddled Music app has been redesigned, smartly and handsomely. A suite of utility programs is there now, right where they should have been the first time around: Alarms, Calculator and Sound Recorder. There are also all-new apps, too, like Food and Drink, Health and Fitness and Reading List. It lets you save Web pages, e-mail messages and Twitter posts for use when you have no Internet connection.
You have more options to tailor your desktop, Start screen and Lock screen in Windows 8.1. For example, you can make your Lock screen a slide show, so that your tablet is a photo frame whenever you’re not working.