SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — 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 backpedaling, 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 reintroduction 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.
Windows 8.1 also has 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 — all at once — previews of websites, apps and documents that are on the device.
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 public will come later in the year.
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.”
Windows 8 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.
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. That’s the worst drop since tracking began in 1994.