Microsoft's shot at redemption

Microsoft still has its work cut out

a woman

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Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) Windows 8.1 has officially arrived to address some of the biggest gripes users had with Windows 8's radical departure from previous Windows franchises. Although the reviews generally welcomed the improvements, they aren't seen as significant enough to please those who had a strong distaste for Windows 8. Regardless, Windows 8.1 reaffirms that Microsoft is betting big on its future vision of computing, where PC and mobile converge, touch rules the day, and you only need one software in your life: Windows.

What's new?
As I'm sure you've heard by now, the Start Button has been reintroduced in Windows 8.1, but only to bring users from the desktop mode to the modernised Start Screen. While this is sure to be a disappointment for Start Menu purists, the feature has been paired with the ability to keep the same background image in both modes, which creates a less jarring transition when toggling between the two. As low-tech as it sounds, this should help users ease into the more modernised Start Screen experience first introduced with Windows 8.

Another notable improvement is Windows 8.1's deeper integration of the cloud with SkyDrive, which now gives users the ability access to their apps and SkyDrive files from any Windows 8.1 device. This will come in handy for users with multiple devices that want to keep their computing experience more unified and cloud-dependent.

The bigger question
Rather than deliberating over all of Windows 8.1's merits and drawbacks, the bigger question is whether Microsoft can successfully usher the inevitable convergence between mobile and desktop computing, and what that will mean for its business, which still relies heavily on a sluggish PC market.

Source: IDC.

The missing ingredient
Although Microsoft may have some influence over PC sales, since it controls the user experience, a lot of Microsoft's success also depends on Intel's (NASDAQ: INTC) ability to deliver compelling mobile products and whether potential buyers will take notice.

With the help of Intel, hardware makers should be able to deliver compelling designs at price points in line with lower-cost mobile computing devices. This holiday season, Intel anticipates a slew of low-cost tablets, 2-in-1 devices, and laptops will feature Intel's latest mobile processors, Haswell and Bay Trail. Come Thanksgiving, the cheapest tablet should go for US$99, the cheapest 2-in-1 should cost US$349, and the cheapest Haswell-powered laptop should fetch US$299.

At these price points, it puts Intel and hopefully Microsoft in a much better competitive position against the sea of low-cost Google Android devices. I say hopefully because the absolute cheapest price points Intel anticipates will likely be reserved for Android devices. It remains to be seen how much of a premium Microsoft devices will command relative to Android devices, and how that could affect reception.

Give it time
With Windows 8.1, Microsoft has made further progress toward its ultimate goal of unifying the computing experience across all of your devices. But Microsoft's vision still needs time to mature, partly because PC makers haven't had enough time to align with Microsoft's intentions, and partly because Microsoft's vision is still in its infancy. Arguably, some of the PC-maker blame could be placed on Intel, which seems to be moving at a glacial pace in terms of getting mobile products to market.

Taking all of this into account, I think investors aren't likely to have a clear picture of how well Microsoft's vision of the future is received for another three to five years. By then, PC makers will have had ample time to evolve, and Microsoft's Windows 8-style computing experience will be much more mature.

In the end, I think we can all agree that Microsoft still has its work cut out.

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A version of this article, written by Steve Heller, originally appeared on

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