One of the most frequent (and justified) criticisms of Windows 8 is that the emphasis on touch-screen input actually makes the product harder to use for anyone with a mouse and keyboard — which is still the great majority of customers. Microsoft appears to be finally conceding that point, announcing plans for an update that will keep the "Modern" tiles but add more features for existing users.
At a press event at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Windows Phone corporate vice president Joe Belfiore announced that a new update for Windows 8.1 was due for release during "[US] spring" this year. Microsoft's Build developers conference, which is in early April, would be the natural launch platform for such a release.
And the headline feature for that update? "We are making improvements to the user interface that will naturally bridge touch and desktop, especially for our mouse and keyboard users," Belfiore said. "We have a number of targeted UI improvements that keep our highly satisfying touch experience intact, but that make the UI more familiar and more convenient for users with mouse/keyboard."
The most prominent of these would appear to be the return of a prominent red 'X' cross in the top right-hand corner of apps, allowing you to close them. I know from experience that many users find the lack of an obvious close option disconcerting, especially if a Modern app launches unexpectedly. (You can always use Alt-F4 to close them, but not everybody knows that.)
Other changes discussed by Belfiore at the event included displaying a context-menu when tiles are right-clicked, the return of a visible power button (rather than burying that within the Settings charm) and a prominent visible search box. It's possible to search within Windows 8 simply by typing from the Start screen, but that approach confuses most users — a point Microsoft already effectively conceded when it added a Search box to the Windows Store in Windows 8.1 after initially insisting one wasn't necessary.
Having already restored the Start button to Windows 8.1, albeit in a cut-down form, these further concessions reinforce the notion that Windows 8 made too radical a shift from its predecessors. It's true that touch-screen users of tablets have been happy with a very different interface, but it's also true that most iPad users weren't trying to migrate from a previous tablet experience. While Windows 8 might require relatively minimal retraining and can run desktop apps, any retraining becomes expensive in an enterprise with thousands of users.
Belfiore described the update as an "update to Windows 8.1", but didn't specify a version number. Windows 8.2 would be the obvious name, though some sources have speculated the next release will be called Windows 9. While Microsoft has committed to yearly update cycles, Windows 8.1 only made its official debut in October last year, which would make a release even in June very early. This update doesn't appear to be the much-discussed Threshold release, which isn't expected until 2015.
Another promised feature of the update is "features that greatly improve IE8 compatibility in Internet Explorer 11, which is especially critical for web-based line of business applications", Belfiore said. That's also a welcome improvement, but once again underlines the big gap between the everyone-brings-their-own-touch-device world we often discuss and the harsh reality of enterprise life, where apps can't be upgraded that rapidly. A business that hasn't yet updated its web-based service to work with modern standards isn't likely to be particularly concerned about tile-based apps.