SAN FRANCISCO — Microsoft on Wednesday released a preview version of an update to Windows 8, aiming to address some of the gripes people have with the company’s flagship operating system.
At a conference in San Francisco, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer acknowledged that the company pushed hard to get people to adopt a radical new tile-based “Modern” user interface in Windows 8. Microsoft is now back-pedaling, making it easier to reach and use the older “desktop” interface.
“Let’s make it easier to start applications the way we’re used to,” Ballmer told the audience of software developers. “What we will show you today is a refined blend of our Desktop experience and our Modern experience.”
Microsoft made the preview of Windows 8.1 available for free as a download.
Windows 8.1 will allow people to boot up in Desktop mode. There, they’ll find a button that resembles the old Start button. It won’t take users to the old Start menu, but to the new “Modern” Windows 8 start screen. Still, the re-introduction of the familiar button may make it easier for longtime Windows users to get accustomed to the changes. A common complaint about Windows 8 is that it hides features and functions, and replaces buttons with gestures and invisible click zones that have to be memorized.
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.
Julie Larson-Green, the head of Microsoft’s Windows division, said the update, rapid by Microsoft standards, “shows how much more responsive our engineering has become.”
Many of the new features have been shown 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.