Just about one year ago, Microsoft gave us two new operating systems.
One was a new version of Windows: the one for use with mouse and keyboard, the one whose desktop at this moment lights up hundreds of millions of screens, the one with a software library of 4 million programs.
The other was a new operating system for tablets. It was modeled on Microsoft's lovely tiled Home screen for Windows Phones: colorful, clear, elegant, filled with fluid touch gestures. You can't run Photoshop or iTunes or Quicken on it; this new system requires a whole new type of app. Since Microsoft doesn't have a name for this OS (it abandoned the names Metro and Modern), I call it TileWorld.
All of this might have been fine, except for one tragic miscalculation: Microsoft mashed these two new operating systems together into something called Windows 8.
Now you have two Web browsers to learn. Two completely different Help systems. Two (actually three) control panels. Two kinds of programs: the traditional ones, which have menus and overlapping windows, and TileWorld apps, which don't have either of those things.
Reviewers and PC fans gave Microsoft quite a swat on the nose. PC World wrote that Windows 8 is "not worthwhile" for desktop computer users. PC Magazine: "Too drastic for some." InformationWeek: "A big flop. Its Frankenstein interface combines two fundamentally incompatible operating systems."
PC sales plunged 14% in the months after Windows 8's release. The executive who masterminded Windows 8 abruptly left the company.
Microsoft, licking its wounds, spent a year trying to fix Windows 8. Today, you can download the result: Windows 8.1. It's free to anyone who already has Windows 8, and it will come preinstalled on new computers.
The changes to TileWorld are nearly endless — and terrific. The big news is that the Start button is back at the desktop, in the lower-left corner. Yet incredibly, despite the wails of the masses, clicking it still doesn't open the Start menu. Instead, it just takes you back to TileWorld.
There are still three different places to make settings to your computer — two in TileWorld, plus the traditional Control Panel. But at least more of the Control Panel's settings are now duplicated in the TileWorld settings panels, so you don't have another environment switch to change them.
We should be grateful for these baby steps. Unfortunately, all of it is a giant exercise in rearranging crackers on plates on deck chairs on the Titanic.
The fundamental problem with Windows 8 hasn't changed: You're still working in two operating systems at once.
There are still too many duplicate programs and settings, one in each environment. And you still can never live entirely in one world or the other.
The more you work with Windows 8, the more screamingly obvious the solution becomes: Split it up. Offer regular Windows on regular computers, offer TileWorld on tablets. That way, everyone has to learn only one operating system, and each operating system is suited to its task.
David Pogue is the New York Times' tech columnist. He can be reached at davidpogue.com or @Pogue on Twitter. See full columns at fresnobee.com/pogue.