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Microsoft overhauls Windows 8 to attract users, app developers

June 28, 2013 08:06 IST

Microsoft overhauls Windows 8 to attract users, app developers

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Malathi Nayak and Bill Rigby in San Francisco/Seattle


Microsoft released a test version of its Windows 8.1 software, bringing back the "start" button and adding a host of features it hopes will appeal to users, while spurring developers into writing more applications for it.

The updated Windows, which was signalled at the end of May, is aimed chiefly at soothing traditional computer users, many of whom were unsettled by Microsoft's shift towards a new "tile"-based interface that works best on touch-enabled devices, but left fans of the old-style desktop confused.

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Image: Children play with Microsoft's 'Schlaumaeuse' education software that runs on a Windows 8 operated tablet computer during the program's presentation in Berlin, Germany.
Photographs: Thomas Peter/Reuters

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"Since we announced and shipped Windows 8, suffice it to say, we pushed boldly and yet what we found was we got a lot of feedback from users of those millions of desktop applications," said Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer, opening the company's annual developer conference in San Francisco.

"If I was to put it in coffee terms, 'Why don't you go and refine the blend here?' Let's remix the desktop and your modern application experience. Let's balance them better," said Ballmer, summing up user feedback.

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Image: Steve Ballmer displays Windows phones during his keynote address at the Microsoft 'Build' conference in San Francisco, California.
Photographs: Robert Galbraith/Reuters

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The result is the reinstatement of the 'start' button, and easier ways to find and access applications, along with a highly improved search function, some of which was announced last month.

Microsoft shares closed up 2 per cent at $34.35 on Nasdaq, outpacing generally higher markets. Ballmer also promised a "rapid release cycle" for Windows in future, abandoning its previous policy of making new versions of Windows every three years, in an effort to match Apple and Google.

The response from the thousands of developers at the conference in San Francisco was broadly positive, although attendees tend to be Windows die-hards.

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Image: A man uses a computer at an Apple store inside the Grand Central Station in New York City.
Photographs: Lucas Jackson/Reuters

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"Of course, they're playing some catch up (with Apple and Google). They have been lagging behind for years now," said Jorgen Nilsson, a manager at UK-based Aveva, a firm that makes computer-aided design software applications.

"But this release is driving it forward instead of catching up and making it work for business and personal use. This is looking really good now."

Part of Microsoft's problem has been persuading developers to create apps for Windows 8 and the little-used Windows Phone, given that almost all smartphone and tablet owners are using Apple's iOS or Google's Android system.

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Image: A view of Google's office in Zurich, Switzerland.
Photographs: Courtesy, Camenzind Evolution

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Microsoft overhauls Windows 8 to attract users, app developers

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Microsoft also said on Wednesday that Facebook had finally agreed to work on an app especially for Windows, which should be available this autumn. That is one factor that attract the more than one billion Facebook users to Windows-based tablets.

"I feel like Microsoft can actually seriously compete in the mobile ecosystem now," said Manav Mishra, director of engineering at the Barnes & Noble unit that makes apps for its Nook e-reader.

"Windows 8.1 finishes the journey Windows 8 started and I think it evens the playing field for Microsoft quite a bit, which wasn't the case before."

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Image: Windows Phone 8 are given out following the Microsoft launch event in San Francisco, California.
Photographs: Robert Galbraith/Reuters

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But not all developers are convinced that Windows or Windows Phone are worth the trouble, given the massive built-in audience using iPhones, iPads and Android devices. "I haven't really considered it, No," said Sam Redfern of Psychic Software, maker of the 'Let's Break Stuff!' game, available on Android, iOS and even the BlackBerry PlayBook, when asked about developing for Windows.

"It never seemed like a particularly worthwhile undertaking, in terms of potential revenue."

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Image: A salesperson displays a BlackBerry Z10 during the launch of the smartphone in Mumbai.
Photographs: Vivek Prakash/Reuters

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Markus Persson, developer at Mojang, whose 'Minecraft - Pocket Edition' is a top-seller on both iOS and Android, agreed, saying Microsoft's market was too "tiny. Both Symbian and Blackberry have more users than Windows Phone."

Neither man attended Microsoft's developer conference. Ballmer said that the Windows Store was approaching 100,000 apps. Meanwhile, Apple is nearing one million, with Android not far behind.


Image: A view of Microsoft's headquarters in Issy-les-Moulineaux, near Paris.
Photographs: Charles Platiau/Reuters

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