Microsoft has released an update to Windows 8, aiming to address some of the gripes people have with the latest version of the company's flagship operating system.
The company made a preview of Windows 8.1 available for free as a download on Wednesday.
At an event Wednesday in San Francisco, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer acknowledged that the company pushed hard to get people to adopt a new tile-based user interface. Microsoft is now back-pedaling, making it easier to reach and use the older "desktop" interface.
Windows 8.1 will allow people to start in the desktop mode automatically. In that mode, the company is restoring a button that resembles the old Start button. The button will now take people back to the Windows 8 start screen, rather than the old Start menu, but the re-introduction of the familiar button may make it easier for longtime Windows users to get accustomed to the changes.
Up to 4 different apps on-screen at once
Other new features of Windows 8.1 include more options to use multiple apps. People will be able 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.
The preview version of Windows 8.1 is meant for Microsoft's partners and other technology developers, but anyone can download it. The release comes exactly eight months after 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 later in the year, though the company hasn't announced a specific date.
Many of the new features have been shown off already. A three-day Build conference, which started Wednesday in San Francisco, gives Microsoft developers a chance to learn more about the new system and try it out. It also will give 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.
Windows 8, 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.
PC shipments hit record low
Microsoft and PC makers had been looking to Windows 8 to revive sales of personal computers, but some people have been put off by the radical makeover. Research firm IDC said the operating system actually slowed down the market. Although Microsoft says it has sold more than 100 million Windows 8 licenses so far, IDC said worldwide shipments of personal computers fell 14 percent in the first three months of this year, the worst since tracking began in 1994.
Windows 8 was also supposed to make Microsoft more competitive in the growing market for tablet computers. But Windows tablets had less than a 4 percent market share in the first quarter, compared with 57 percent for Android and 40 percent for Apple's iPad.
One big problem is the fact that Windows 8 doesn't work well on smaller screens, making Windows tablets less competitive with cheaper tablets such as Apple's iPad Mini, Google's Nexus 7 and Amazon's Kindle Fire HD. Microsoft built Windows 8 primarily to run on tablets with 10-inch to 12-inch screens, and it is trying to address that shortcoming in Windows 8.1.
Other complaints with Windows 8 include its lack of a Start button on the lower left corner of the screen. In previous versions of Windows, that button gave people quick access to programs, settings and other tasks. Microsoft replaced that with a tablet-style, full-screen start page, but that covered up whatever programs people were working on, and it had only favorite programs. Extra steps were needed to access less-used programs. Settings, a search box and other functions were hidden away in a menu that had to be pulled out from the right. How to do that changed depending on whether a mouse or touch was used.
Although Microsoft is addressing much of the criticisms with Windows, it is positioning the update as more than just a fix-up job. From its perspective, the tuneup 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.
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 addressing that shift by banking its future on touch controls. Its strategy calls for having just one operating system work on both tablets and traditional computers. That allows popular Windows programs such as Office to work well on tablets, too. But in making Windows easy for touch screens, mouse and keyboard commands are more complex to use and figure out.
Apple and Google, on the other hand, believe people use those machines differently and have opted to keep their operating systems separate. Apple, for instance, believes that it can be tiresome to have to constantly move your arm to touch a desktop or laptop screen. That's not a problem with tablets because you're already holding it.
No confirmation of smaller tablet
As for the growing interest in smaller, cheaper tablets, Microsoft has said the company was working with other manufacturers to make some. But it has yet to confirm reports that it is making its own. A smaller Surface with an 8-inch screen would be significantly smaller than its current, 10.6-inch models.
Such a device would coincide with Intel Corp.'s recent release of a new chip line called Haswell. Intel said Haswell chips offer a 50 percent improvement in battery life over the previous generation when playing back high-definition video.
In an indication that Microsoft Corp. is clearing out inventory of a Surface tablet running the lightweight Windows RT operating system, the company is effectively cutting the price of that by including a keyboard cover for free. The cover sells for $120 or $130 on its own.
Microsoft also said this month that it would give buyers of the RT version of Surface the Outlook email and calendar program at no extra charge — joining other Office freebies Excel, Word and Power Point — and sweetening the offer for the device that is priced starting at $499. That will come as part of the Windows 8.1 update.