Washing Windows

Microsoft takes another crack at its operating-system upgrade

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Last October, Microsoft released Windows 8. With a radically new touch-friendly interface, an app store and other iPad-era trimmings--and no iconic Start button--it was a bold reimagining of the world's dominant PC operating system.

Maybe too bold. In the wake of its release, PC sales plunged by a record-setting 14% in the first quarter of this year, according to research firm IDC.

The fall is not all Windows 8's fault. The industry was already sagging, as consumers switched their spending to gadgets-come-lately like tablets and smartphones. Still, PC users might welcome a Windows upgrade that doesn't ask them to unlearn quite so high a percentage of what they already know. They'll get one when Microsoft releases Windows 8.1, a free update that will debut at the company's Build conference on June 26 and will ship in final form later this year.

The new version isn't a wholesale rollback of Windows 8's many changes: Microsoft is still betting that folks will grow more comfortable with the new look over time. But the company has restored the Start button. It lets you boot up your PC directly into the old-school Windows desktop rather than dumping you into the wholly unfamiliar Start screen. And other new features, such as fancier search and photo-editing tools, aim to make the upgrade tempting rather than intimidating.

Will Windows 8.1 help snap the PC market out of its slump? Ross Rubin, principal analyst at Reticle Research, says the industry has often thrived when Microsoft produced upgrades--such as Windows XP and Windows 7-- that emphasized refinement and continuity over revolutionary advances: "The history of Windows has been that those kinds of releases have been hailed." If consumers are more enthusiastic about Windows 8.1 than they've been for Windows 8, it'll be because 8.1 feels new--but not too new.