Microsoft gave people a peek into Windows 8.1—a free update that promises to address some of the gripes people have with the latest version of the company's flagship operating system—at Microsoft Build 2013.
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The three-day Build conference, which started Wednesday in San Francisco, gave Microsoft developers a chance to learn more about the new system and try it out. It also gives the company a chance to explain some of the reasoning behind the update and sell developers on Microsoft's ambitions to regain relevance lost to Apple's iPad and various devices running Google's Android software.
Although the preview version of Windows 8.1 was meant for Microsoft's partners and other technology developers, everyone is able to download it for free starting Wednesday, exactly eight months since desktops, laptops and tablets with Windows 8 went on sale. The version of the Windows 8.1 update meant for the general public will come out later in the year, though a specific date hasn't been announced.
The big news came from Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer in his keynote address: The return of the "start" button! This was one of users' biggest gripes about Windows 8.
Ballmer said the update was a bit of a mea culpa that they "pushed too boldly with Windows 8."
One caveat: The "start" button won't launch the same pop-up menu as it used to, instead it takes users to the new start screen and users can right-click to get to the control panel, task manager, search and other items, as well as to shut down or restart the computer. (In Windows 8, restart and shutdown were hidden in a drop-down in the top right corner.)
Windows 8, which was released Oct. 26, was meant to be Microsoft's answer to changing customer behaviors and the rise of tablet computers. The operating system emphasizes touch controls over the mouse and the keyboard, which had been the main way people have interacted with their personal computers since the 1980s.
And while Microsoft has encouraged people to use the new tablet-style layout, many programs—including Microsoft's latest Office software package—are designed for the older, desktop mode. People were forced into the tablet layout when they start up the machine and had to manually switch the desktop mode each time.
With the update, users will also be able to boot directly to their desktop.
"We designed Windows 8.1 to feel natural on everything from small tablets all the way to desktop workstations," said Julie Larson-Green, Microsoft's corporate vice president for Windows.
Microsoft also tweaked the start screen so users can see many apps at a glance. People will get more options to determine how much of the screen each app takes while showing up to four different programs, rather than just two.
The update will also offer more integrated search results, showing users previews of websites, apps and documents that are on the device, all at once.
Although Microsoft has said it has sold more than 100 million Windows 8 licenses so far, some analysts have blamed the lackluster response to the operating system for a steep drop in PC sales in the first three months of the year, the worst drop since tracking by outside research firms began in 1994.
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It's crucial that Microsoft sets things right with Windows 8.1 because the outlook for the PC market keeps getting gloomier. IDC now expects PC shipments to fall by nearly 8 percent this year, worse than its previous forecast of a 1 percent dip. IDC also anticipates tablets will outsell laptop computers for the first time this year.
Microsoft is positioning the update as more than just a fix-up job. From its perspective, the tune-up underscores Microsoft's evolution into a more nimble company capable of moving quickly to respond to customer feedback while also rolling out more innovations for a myriad of Windows devices—smartphones, tablets or PCs.
In his keynote address, Ballmer said the one thing he was most excited about was the "rapid pace of innovation" and that the company was going through a transformation from a traditional software company to a "rapid release" company that builds software-powered devices and services.
Microsoft executives also demonstrated Project Spark, a simulator unveiled at the E3 video game conference in Los Angeles this month. It invites gamers to craft virtual worlds with the swipe of a finger, and then play through them on the Xbox One.
Ballmer used that as an example of what a new world of apps can look like — whether it's productivity in the office or hard-core fun with gaming. He says Microsoft is trying to facilitate all that by releasing updates rapidly.
Ballmer said more apps are coming for Windows tablets, including Facebook and a fantasy football app from the NFL.
Microsoft also unveiled new capabilities with its Bing search technology, including better maps. The Windows 8.1 maps app will come with 3-D imagery, which developers can embed in their own apps.
Windows 8.1 will update apps automatically, and the Bing search engine will recommend new ones for you based on what you've used before.
Windows 8.1 also supports 3-D printing. On stage, Antoine Leblond, corporate vice president of the Windows web-services team, started printing a vase using a MakerBot device.
Microsoft did not announce a smaller version of its Surface tablet computer, as had been expected.