Early builds of the Windows 8.1 Update 1 software leaked online over the weekend and The Verge showed off a number of new Windows 8.1 screenshots on Sunday evening. The visual changes make it clear that Microsoft is working to further blend the traditional mouse and keyboard Desktop environment with the tiled, touch-friendly Metro interface.
This version of the software was compiled on January 14 and it shows the running Metro applications in the Desktop taskbar, just like regular PC apps. That makes it easier to see which apps are open from the Desktop instead of having to swipe in from the left side of the screen, which is trickier to do with a mouse than with a touchscreen.
In the Metro interface, right-clicking an app with the mouse or trackpad shows options to resize it or pin it to or from the Start screen or the taskbar. The computer’s power button also appears directly on the Start screen in Metro, making it faster to access. And Metro apps now get a title bar, just like traditional Windows apps: You can minimize or snap them with a mouse click from here.
The changes illustrate the challenge Microsoft has faced since Windows 8 arrived. The company is in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation.
On the one hand, Microsoft’s traditional Windows interface isn’t designed for touch devices such as tablets — hence the tiled Metro user interface and apps. On the other hand, legacy Windows users still rely on their mice or trackpads, along with keyboards, to do their work. By sticking solely with that interface, Microsoft would have no chance on tablets or other mobile devices.
Until Microsoft’s Build developer event takes place in April, we won’t know for sure if the leaked build is simply a one-off for testing. I suspect it’s not, however. Blending the Desktop and Metro interfaces would reduce some of the back-and-forth that people don’t like in Windows 8.1.
I’m also expecting more blending under the hood. If Microsoft can share more code and APIs between Windows Phone, Windows RT (if it’s still going to be around), and Windows 8.1, developers can broaden their audience across Microsoft’s platforms.