Developers warm to Windows 8.1
MICROSOFT released a test version of its Windows 8.1 software on Wednesday, bringing back the "start" button and adding a host of features it hopes will appeal to users, while spurring developers to write more applications for it.
The updated Windows is aimed chiefly at appeasing traditional computer users, many of whom were unsettled by Microsoft's move towards a new tile-based interface that works best on touch-enabled devices, but left fans of the old-style desktop confused.
After looking at user feedback, said chief executive Michael Ballmer, Windows 8.1 will see the reinstatement of the "start" button, with easier ways to find and access applications, along with a greatly improved search function.
Mr Ballmer also promised a "rapid release cycle" for Windows in the future, abandoning its 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 Microsoft's annual developer conference in San Francisco was broadly positive.
"Of course, they're playing some catch-up (with Apple and Google). They have been lagging behind for years now," said Mr Jorgen Nilsson, a manager at British-based Aveva, a firm that makes computer-aided-design software applications.
"But this release is driving it forward instead of (just) 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.
Microsoft also said that Facebook has finally agreed to work on an app especially for Windows, which should be available this autumn. That is one factor that might help 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 Mr Manav Mishra, director of engineering at the Barnes & Noble unit that makes apps for its Nook e-reader.
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 Mr 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."
Mr Markus Persson, developer at Mojang, whose Minecraft - Pocket Edition is a top seller on both iOS and Android, agreed, saying that Microsoft's market was too "tiny. Both Symbian and BlackBerry have more users than Windows Phone".
Mr Ballmer said that the Windows Store was approaching 100,000 apps. Apple's is nearing one million, with Android not far behind.