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Why Microsoft isn’t really backtracking with Windows 8.1 Update, despite appearances

Some of the changes in Microsoft's latest Windows 8.1 Update have all the appearance of backtracking. I'm thinking in particular of its booting by default to the desktop rather than to the new tile-and-touch-based modern interface. There's also the fact that new-style apps no longer open by default when a desktop user double clicks. For example, a photo file no longer opens in the modern default Photos app, but in the time-tested Windows Photo Viewer desktop applet.

The important thing to note in each of these "backtracks" is that they only apply to desktop and laptop users. The operating system detects which kind of device it's installed on – one with touch input or one with a mouse and keyboard – and chooses the default interface accordingly.

An ingenious thing about Windows 8.1 Update is that it introduces no actual marquee features – there's nothing like Mac OS X Mavericks' Maps or iBooks apps. Instead, Windows 8.1 Update is mostly about changing the behaviour and appearance of existing features – primarily for mouse and keyboard users.

In fact, the update is less about backtracking and more about moving towards two differentiated flavours of the OS for touch tablets and mouse/keyboard systems, while maintaining Windows as a single OS for both.

The Update doesn't merely return long-time users to their comfort zone, however: It's also a move towards integrating the operating system's two guises. The clearest example of this is that Store apps can now get Taskbar buttons on the desktop. Another is that the old-school Taskbar itself will appear while a desktop user is running a modern app and moves the mouse to the bottom of the screen. Giving modern apps a familiar program title bar also points to this integration. So while on the surface, Update may seem to be reverting to the look of Windows 7 and earlier, it's actually sneaking the modern interface into the desktop at the same time.

It probably makes sense that touch tablets and their ilk got most of the attention in the initial Windows 8 release – after all, that was the new, exciting part of the OS. The desktop was nearly identical to Windows 7, though it did receive some updates and new capabilities. According to its satisfaction feedback, Microsoft served the touch device users well: They reported a higher level of satisfaction than any previous Windows version, including the very highly rated Windows 7.

So it's true that while some of the changes in Windows 8.1 Update could be viewed as backtracks to the good ole days of Windows 7 and before, the overall strategy fosters a move towards integration of new and old, encompassing both touch and mechanical input. No doubt there will be a faction of Windows veterans who still won't be happy with these changes, which are intended specifically to please them. But maybe they'll be less unhappy. And plenty of desktop and mouse users will simply enjoy a slicker, more coherent experience – one that will smooth their path to touch computing.

One question that no one outside of Microsoft can answer right now is whether Windows 9 will be more of a backtrack – possibly even splitting the desktop and tablet operating systems – or more of a move forward.

And all of this leaves out yet another strategic question: How will Windows Phone fit into this? Microsoft's recent push towards Oneness – OneDrive, Xbox One – may or may not be a guidepost for the answer to that one. There's a new sheriff at Microsoft, so large strategic changes aren't out of the question.

But for now, in the narrow context of Windows 8.1 Update, the appearance of backtracking to the old days of Windows is purely superficial.

For more on this subject, check out: 8 things everyone should know about the Windows 8.1 Update.