A look at the black underbelly of Windows 8.1 'Blue'

Pieces of Windows 8 inexplicably didn't survive jump to Windows 8.1, and new feature allows Microsoft to track your local searches

As Windows 8.1 Milestone Preview testers push and prod their way into the dark corners of Windows 8.1 "Blue," they're finding a bunch of things that go bump in the night. From new and likely unwelcome features, to nudges into the Microsoft data tracking sphere, to entire lopped-off pieces of Windows 8, it looks like Microsoft is changing Windows to further its own agenda.

I'm not talking about the well-documented gotchas with the Win 8.1 Preview -- Microsoft makes no bones about the fact you won't be able to upgrade directly from the Preview to the final, shipping version of Windows 8.1, for example, and it warns repeatedly that you can't uninstall the Milestone Preview. I'm also not talking about typical beta blues -- clicking on a Metro app button and getting dumped back on the Metro Start screen kind of comes with the beta-testing ride. Nor am I talking about the updates to the Preview that have already shipped: I count 10 installed on my 64-bit test machine through Windows Update (not bad for a beta that's only been out for a couple of weeks).

The changes I'm seeing are more ... inscrutable. Some people think they're sinister. Few of them have even a wisp of documentation. We potential Windows 8.1 customers are left trying to figure out what Microsoft intends to do and how the changes will affect the way we work.

Microsoft Accounts bare its fangs

With Windows 8, you're encouraged to set up every new Windows user with a Microsoft Account -- which is to say, it's easy to set up a new user by employing an email address that's been registered with Microsoft. It's possible to create a new Win8 user without providing a Microsoft Account, but you need to click a few rather obscure links in the setup routine to get around the restriction.

On the other hand, it's very difficult to install Windows 8.1 "Blue" Preview without using a Microsoft Account. While there are some clever workarounds to bypass the forced Microsoft Account login, you have to be quite persistent to get the Preview installed without linking your installation -- your computer's unique ID -- to your Microsoft Account.

Microsoft says that the Microsoft Account requirement will be lifted for the final release:

Warning

In order to use Windows 8.1 Preview you must sign in to your PC with a Microsoft account. The option to create a local account will be made available at the final release of Windows 8.1.

But there are no details about how the requirement will be lifted or whether the same hoops that worked with Windows 8 will work with the final version of Windows 8.1

Microsoft can track your local searches

If you use Microsoft Bing or Google search -- or almost any other search engine -- you already know that Microsoft and/or Google can and do keep track of your searches. That's why a casual Web search for "flugelhorn" will result in you seeing targeted ads for flugelhorns on almost every site you visit for the following month.

But running a search on your computer for "flugelhorn" through the Windows 8 Search charm doesn't increase your chances of seeing online ads for flugelhorns -- I think. Although I can't find a suitable legalistic disclaimer anywhere, Microsoft doesn't appear to be scraping, storing, and regurgitating local computer search strings to, uh, enhance your shopping experience.

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