The Build 2013 conference took place in San Francisco from June 26 to June 28. The reason that Microsoft had another Build conference less than a year after last year’s Build 2012 was the announcement of Windows 8.1.
Windows 8 took a lot of flak and personally, hasn’t been able to convince me to upgrade any of my devices because it didn’t seem like a good idea for my use cases (non-touch laptops, large/multi-monitor desktops).
The “.1” indicates that this Windows release is not about major features, but (sometimes much-needed) tweaks of the 8.0 release. Two of these make it easier for me to warm up to the idea of using that OS on one of my machines:
- Switching the search experience on the start screen back to Windows 7’s “just type what you want and I’ll find it” removes a major annoyance; Windows 8 required you to
- either switch between search results after the fact (and who wants to be told at first that a search term yielded no results when you know it should)
- or remember to use different hotkeys for different searches.
- Allowing to use the desktop background as a background for the start screen dramatically reduces the “whoa, what just happened?” effect when moving between the two worlds.
My personal (long-term) killer feature of Windows 8.1 is the introduction of a 200% scaling option for desktop usage. The times of “everything is 96 DPI” are long gone with the advent of high-res displays in laptops, but using the existing scaling options introduce the problem of non-integer multiplication of coordinates and sizes. That’s why Apple went for the approach of splitting a single pixel into four pixels when they introduced “Retina” displays starting with the iPhone 4.
The upcoming “Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus” that was shown briefly in the keynote on day one will offer a resolution of 3200 x 1800 on a 13” screen. On Windows up to version 8, this is absolutely useless in desktop mode. On Windows 8.1, with the 200% scaling option, 1600 x 900 “pixel groups” suddenly make a lot of sense.
Things change slowly in the Windows world, so it will take many, many years until high-DPI displays become non-problematic, especially in terms of desktop applications. In that regard, the Apple side not only has a head start, but also will see a faster adoption of high-DPI displays – at some point in the future, Apple will simply not offer any other hardware.
But every change, however slow it may be, has to start sometime. And I’m glad that Windows 8.1 is finally that starting point.
Windows 8.0 introduced the Windows Runtime, WinRT, and regardless of how much effort you put into an 1.0 version, it can never be complete. Windows 8.1 adds new APIs and new controls to WinRT, filling some of the gaps.
As promising as WinRT and its further development may be, my personal interest remains limited. This is caused by Microsoft’s strategy in regard to apps, which requires all apps to go through a submission process to the Windows App Store. In my opinion this is contrary to what made the PC/Windows environment so great in the first place. But that’s a topic I’ll better cover in a separate blog post.
It was encouraging to see the investments in desktop features. Beyond high DPI, the Windows team put some effort in the area of input methods (quotes from session slides: “precision touchpad”, “renewed interest in pen”).
As a user of a Wacom Intuos 5 Touch tablet and Adobe Photoshop, I was delighted to see an Adobe representative up on stage in one of the sessions, pledging support for the things to come. Right now, I have the feeling that the tablet and Photoshop together don’t reach their full potential. I suspect that part of the reason is that the operating system could do a better job in connecting these two; on a Mac OS X computers, the touch features are reported to work better in Photoshop.
In each of the desktop-related sessions I attended, the code samples were written in C++. This is understandable in some way, after all we’re talking about new/improved APIs for Win32. On the other hand, in order for .NET developers to be able to use the new features, somebody has to pinvoke the hell out these APIs. And I’m not sure we’ll see an official managed library from Microsoft (but I’d be happy to be proven wrong).
The overall feeling I got from the Build conference is that while Microsoft leaves out few opportunities to shoot themselves in the foot, they still have a lot of smart people producing a lot of really cool and powerful stuff. What this means in terms of success remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t count out Microsoft prematurely – history shows they have a long breath.