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Bowing to market pressure, Microsoft's Windows 8.1 updates will enhance usability for non-touchscreen devices, expand Windows 8 hardware design requirements and improve compatibility with older versions of Internet Explorer.
"Microsoft can't be a closed, unique environment anymore," said Jack Gold, principal of J. Gold Associates LLC in Northborough, Mass. "That also extends to Windows 8.1 on the PC level. They can't force users to move to a system that doesn't work well for them. They're backing off and saying, 'We made a mistake and [will] try to do better.'"
Microsoft clearly is still a major player, but it doesn't have the center of gravity and is finally reacting accordingly, Gold said.
"If they don't, they're going to get creamed," he said.
Windows 8.1 updates bring familiarity
Some of the touch-enabled features were not as fine-tuned for keyboard and mouse users, acknowledged Joe Belfiore, vice president of operating systems at Microsoft, during Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week. In addition, changes such as the power and search selections are now located on the Start screen next to the user account, rather than in the charms bar.
"They are classically expected to be [there] for those people who don't have touch," Belfiore said during the press conference.
Windows 8 adoption:
By the numbers
Microsoft claims it has sold 200 million Windows 8 licenses. However, that number is still shy of the pace for Windows 7 adoption, which captured 240 million licensees after 12 months.
To date, Windows 7 has 47.5% market share, Windows 8 and 8.1 are at 10.6%, Windows XP has 29.2%, and Windows Vista has 3.3%, according to NetMarketShare's January 2014 report. Mac OS X, Linux and others combined totaled 9.4%.
Microsoft will also improve the usability for starting, closing and switching among applications using the task bar and right mouse clicks.
In addition, there will be better compatibility with Internet Explorer 11 and IE 8, the version of IE in Windows 7. Enterprises performing test deployments with Windows 8 and IE 11 encountered incompatibility problems with internal Web applications that dated back to IE 8, Belfiore said.
Whether the Windows 8.1 updates will make a big difference in adoption remain to be seen.
"[Potential adopters are] going to be cautious," said Ric Getter, a programmer analyst at Portland Community College in Portland, Ore. The college is testing Windows 8.1 to see how the operating system works in the environment.
Microsoft's concession to bring back more classic features acknowledges the need to listen to its enterprise customers, especially as the business segment has been slow to adopt Windows 8 desktops and mobile devices. Not only is Microsoft going after the enterprise with the new updates that make Windows 8 more familiar, but it's also targeting consumers, said Bob Egan, chief analyst and founder of Sepharim Group, an IT consulting firm in Falmouth, Mass.
"Microsoft is finally checking the pulse of consumers and finding prescriptive paths," he said.
In addition, Microsoft said it would expand its hardware design requirements, opening the chute for OEMs to deliver low-cost Windows 8 devices that offer a base of 1 GB of RAM and 16 GB of flash storage. Current hardware designs call for devices that include 2 GB of RAM and 32 GB of storage.
Expect more Windows phones
Nine new Windows Phone partners also came on board this week, including Lenovo, LG and Foxconn. Qualcomm Snapdragon 200 and 400 series chipsets have also been designed for Windows Phone.
Meanwhile, Microsoft's acquisition of Nokia is expected to close in March. This week, Nokia unveiled the Nokia X, an Android-based smartphone that will run Microsoft services including Skype, OneDrive and Outlook.com.
Questions concerning how Nokia's Android phone will affect Windows Phone caused Microsoft to address the situation in a blog post written by Frank Shaw, corporate vice president of communications at Microsoft. Shaw pointed out that the Nokia acquisition has yet to close and that both companies still run independently of each other.
In addition, Shaw highlighted how Microsoft services ran on the Nokia X and said that Microsoft's primary smartphone strategy still focuses on Windows Phone.
With the Nokia X and support for mobile devices outside the Windows realm, Microsoft continues its quest for being more open in a competitive environment. Microsoft receives a significant revenue stream from Android royalty fees, with estimates as high as $2 billion, according to some financial analysts.
Microsoft recently signed Android patent-licensing deals with Hop-On Inc. and Voxx Electronics, showing the continued revenue stream is expected to continue this trend in the future.
Microsoft earns more revenue from its Android licensing patents compared with Windows Phone, Gold said.
Microsoft declined to comment for this article.