Windows 8.1 Does Little to Boost Holiday 2013 Sales

Last week, I tuned into Microsoft’s Channel 9 to listen to keynotes and developer lectures for MS BUILD, Microsoft’s developer conference. BUILD attracts Microsoft devotees from its developer community for PCs, phones, servers and even XBOX.

The biggest item on everyone’s mind was Windows 8.1 and how Microsoft planned to breathe developer life into the platform. The conference was set against a backdrop of flagging PC sales and a PC ecosystem that is one edge, anxious to decide where they should be making their future investments. When BUILD concluded and the smoke cleared, my takeaway was that Windows 8.1 is a step forward, but will do little to boost holiday 2013 sales. Ironically, the hardware could make a difference. Let’s start with what 8.1 brings to the table.

Windows 8.1 was about two things- making Windows 8 more comfortable for traditional Windows desktop users and completing the base Windows tablet experience. Here is a list of the top features making it easier for desktop users:

  • Adding back the Start menu: While in the desktop app, clicking on the white Windows flag takes you back to the start screen in Metro. Right-clicking the flag let’s you shut down the system and access key desktop settings.
  • Boot to Desktop: Windows 8.1 let’s you boot to the desktop app, which is essentially the Windows 7 experience .
  • Remove Charms: Allows users to disable charms when you place your cursor in the top right or bottom right corner of the display.
  • Jump to All Apps: Upon pressing the Windows flag in desktop, this can take you to the All Apps page. If selected in settings, this means users will never have to see a Live Tile unless they want to.

So literally, if you don’t want to see much of anything that Windows 8 brings over Windows 7, Windows 8.1 will let you do that. Let’s move to the Windows 8.1 features that signify completion of the base Windows 8 tablet experience:

  • 8″ tablets: Windows 8.1 supports 8″ tablets, the volume driver in its category.
  • System-wide search: Instead of choosing between searching for apps, settings or files, the new search searches everything. This reminds me of Windows 7 and of OS X, but is arguably a better search than 8.
  • Basic photo and video editing: Windows 8 had no photo or video editing, obviously a feature left on the cutting room floor given every major OS has this already, including Windows 7. Windows 8.1 brings some basic and touch-optimized tools to the table. I really like the dials in photo editing.
  • Improved App Snapping: Windows 8 limited users to simultaneously display two apps, one occupying 75% of the display and one occupying the other 25% of the display. This limited the amount and kind of apps users could run. 8.1 adds up to 4 windows of varying sizes. This is a big step but I find it still difficult to get the windows in the right place.
  • Miracast: This enables 8.1 devices to wirelessly share their display when connected to a Miracast-certified devices listed here. This really helps plug the AirPlay hole. I have yet to test this feature pervasively, but I hope it is nearly as solid as AirPlay or it won’t be widely adopted.
  • Tile customization: Tiles can be 4 different sizes and similar apps can be assembled together with header names. This isn’t as clear as folders but extends the platform and makes it simpler than before.

All of these improvements to the desktop and tablet mode are a real step forward, but unfortunately won’t make a big difference on sales in holiday 2013.

Why? You first have to understand what’s holding Windows 8 back in the consumer marketplace.

As I have been very consistent on, I am a believer that the closer the PC gets to the tablet, consumers will be more likely to buy a new PC. It won’t be one watershed event, but a long term evolution of the PC into the simple, always on, always updated, snappy, thin, light, reliable, with many apps, and 10+ hour battery life device. Many users appreciate this today in the the iPad, Nexus, Galaxy, Kindle Fire, etc.

The clear majority of Windows 8 PCs shipped up to this point, however, were quite different than the optimal. Most delivered three hours battery life, were heavy, difficult to use versus a tablet, weren’t touch-based, weren’t always-on or always connected, a bit lethargic and didn’t offer the consumer app library. Either that or they were expensive if you couldn’t use them as a “2 in 1″ device (some usage models yes, but not all). What problems does Windows 8.1 help solve? Let me give 8.1 credit where it is due- 8.1 is simpler and more robust than 8. For the other consumer issues outlined above, 8.1 doesn’t improve a whole lot of anything. While I was initially excited about the prospect of an 8″ tablet, it was squelched by the awful reviews of Acer’s 8″ tablet. I didn’t sense confidence after listening to BUILD that tier 1 and 2 apps will grow in numbers, even though I was excited about Facebook coming to the platform.

Does this mean the industry should pack it in for holiday 2013 and go home? Absolutely not, as hardware could help turn the tide for Holiday 2013. Between Intel, AMD, Qualcomm, Nvidia and their OEMs, they have the ability to bring the required touch-based snappiness, always-on, always-connected, thin, light, with 10+ hours battery life to tablets and convertibles, all at a decent price. Think of the irony for a second; hardware helping save software. Sad, but true nonetheless. This isn’t to say Microsoft’s efforts won’t make a different for the holidays, because they will. But I believe their latest retail strategy will make a much bigger impact than they made with the improvements made in Windows 8.1.

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