Windows 8.1 has addressed a lot of issues that people had with Microsoft's favourite child -- and by that, I mean it stuck a Start button down in the bottom-right corner. But there's a much greater, much deeper problem holding back Windows, and 8.1, rather than fixing it, Microsoft only gave it the most cursory of nods.
It's all about the screen. One of the many things dribbling down to PCs from the smartphone wars is the trend towards high-density displays. PC manufacturers are pushing way past 1080p, into the realms of what Apple would call 'Retina' displays -- so sharp you can't see the pixels. Toshiba's Kirabook, the Samsung Ativ Q, even Microsoft's own Surface Pro -- all have ludicrously hi-res displays.
But Windows was never designed to handle this sort of hardware. While 8 brought a completely re-thought user interface to bear, optimised for touch, the emerging technology of hi-DPI displays was pretty much left out in the cold. Windows 8 doesn't take into account the physical size of the screen, only the resolution -- hence as the pixels get smaller, so too do the buttons and knobs on the desktop in Windows.
Now, technically, there is support for scaling applications larger in Windows 8. If you head into the screen resolution menu, you can see options to enlarge text, by 125, 150 (or in Windows 8.1), 200 per cent. Although that should provide a simple solution, it requires third-party developers to re-code their apps to work in a hi-DPI environment -- both with font scaling, and also by providing higher-resolution assets. Although apps will still obey the scaling, they'll become horrible to look at while doing so: Internet Explorer, on the left, is DPI-aware, whereas Chrome, on the right, is not:
So it's all the developer's fault, right? Well, no. Microsoft have made things unnecessarily complex. See, what works on the desktop doesn't work in Metro. There, scaling is handled at either 140 or 180 per cent automatically; however, assets need to still be provided at a higher res. Otherwise, vector graphics can also be provided to allow for infinite scaling.
All that adds up to an incredibly complicated solution. Just like on Android, where fragmentation across devices doesn't exactly encourage developers to produce pretty apps, all the different scaling methods on Windows adds a huge amount of extra leg-work for developers, needing to test their apps in different environments on a huge range of different devices, all to make sure it'll always scale correctly.
This only becomes a real problem when placed in context. At a Windows 8.1 event yesterday in London, Microsoft's marketing guru for the UK, Rob Epstein, took pains to point out the huge range of exciting, innovative devices coming onto the market, even going so far as to call out the Kirabook and Ativ Q, the hi-DPI standard-bearers. But so long as Microsoft continues to be relatively inactive with implementing top-notch support for hi-res screens, it's squandering its advantage against stuff like the Retina MacBook Pro.
Now partially, that's the fault of third-party developers not pushing for a solution hard enough. But there also seems to be a fair bit of Microsoft dragging its feet. While it was nice to see the problem at least acknowledged in Windows 8.1, the lack of a long-term solution, or even a hint that one's being worked on, will keep pushing serious pixel-lovers in the direction of the Retina MacBook Pro; ultimately, it'll just be Microsoft, PC makers and us poor consumers feeling the pain.
Image credit: Intel