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Windows 8.1: A course correction for Microsoft along the lines of Windows 3.1?

Windows 8.1 is here. Is it time to jump? Yep.

Windows 8 has really divided PC users, because it's Microsoft's attempt to strong-arm them into a new way of using PCs. Mice are out, touch is in. Boxed software is out, the app store is in. It's been the biggest change in PC style since graphical user interfaces arrived decades ago, and users are revolting.

But Windows 8.1 might fix that, and if it does, it'll follow in a grand trend of course-correcting Windows point-one releases. Windows 3.1 – the version that turned Windows from a headache into a necessity – is probably the best example.

As a teenage Mac-head in the late eighties, I remember making fun of the first few versions of Windows. They were clunky, ugly, and often unstable, and the vast majority of PC programs still ran in DOS mode. Windows looked and felt like it was bolted on, not essential.

But then Windows 3.1 happened, and we started seeing Windows everywhere. Windows 3.1 made Windows more stable, better looking, and more usable, with much better mouse support, a better memory manager, a better looking GUI and far fewer crashes.

Other versions of Windows have had meaningful service packs, as well. Windows 98 Second Edition, in April 1999, seriously improved hardware support and system stability. That was a pretty big deal. Windows 98 SE, not the original Windows 98, got many Windows users (including myself at the time) to upgrade from Windows 95. Windows XP SP1, in 2002, focused on security. I'll gloss over the Vista and Windows 7 service packs; there was no fixing Vista, and Windows 7 was so good that the SP didn't have much to fix.

But Windows 3.1 made Windows usable. Windows 8.1 may do the same.

A course correction

Windows 8 always had trouble serving two masters, the touch-enabled tablet world and the great mass of desktop users with keyboards and mice. Microsoft swung way too far over towards the tableteers with its first release. Guess what I'm running on my big number-crunching Xeon-powered desktop? Windows 7 Service Pack 1.

But the OS has a lot to give. If this Microsoft tablet thing takes off, and it has to take off for Microsoft to survive into the 2020s, tablet-style apps are going to flourish. Microsoft has been pouring a lot of energy into this. Desktop users shouldn't be left behind as the seesaw tilts towards touch – they just shouldn't be forced into using their computers in an undesirable manner.

Thus we have this course correction. Windows 8.1 lets desktop users be desktop users and touch users be touch users. Thought has gone into how to make the new-style apps more usable for desktop owners, who want to multitask and split their screens (as opposed to tablet owners, who often do one thing at a time.) The only remaining step would be to let the desktop faithful use the new-style app in a desktop window – I could easily see that coming in Windows 8.2.

There's one major fly left in the Windows 8 ointment: The hideous mutant known by many as Windows RT. Microsoft has been wasting blood and treasure trying to promote ARM-based Windows tablets that don't run many of the Windows applications you hear about on the web, see ads for, or see on shelves in stores. That leaves the RT experience confusing and frustrating.

Hopefully, Microsoft will kill off RT soon; now that we're seeing Intel-based 8in tablets for more budget friendly prices, there isn't much room for it. The lower end of the tablet and phablet market can be occupied by Windows Phone, which has now been updated to support 5in and 6in screens.

Onward to Windows 9

Windows 8 is always going to straddle two worlds, because it's struggling to deal with two very different ways of using your computer. When I'm processing spreadsheets, I don't want big finger-friendly icons. On the other hand, I don't want to play Angry Birds Star Wars II with my mouse.

Windows 8.1 isn't going to be a smash hit like Windows 7 was, but I think it corrects the course enough to succeed. It restores balance to the Force. It'll be a Windows 95, not a Windows ME.

But like those two shorter-lived operating systems (and unlike XP), I'm pretty sure Windows 9 is coming soon. Reliable rumours are saying that Windows 9 will shift all of the Windows RT energy over to Windows Phone, giving Microsoft a more streamlined set of options and a clearer message for consumers.

Hopefully it'll continue what Windows 8.1 has started – maintaining the delicate balance of keeping business-critical, desktop users happy as the whole computer industry's emphasis switches over to touch, gestures, and things like Kinect.

For more, check out our full review of Windows 8.1, our guide to installing Windows 8.1, and 5 tips to help you run Windows 8.1 as smoothly as possible.