Microsoft previews Windows 8.1, music app and more –

Story highlights

Microsoft previewed the latest changes to its Windows 8.1 operating system

The company is updating its Xbox Music app to add Pandora-type features

Support for 3-D printers is now built into the operating system

A free preview version of WIndows 8.1 is available to everyone now


The newest version of Windows is getting some changes. Among them? A little dose of old Windows.

Microsoft is making adjustments to its Windows 8 operating system, beginning with the resurrection of the Start button.

The changes, announced today at the Microsoft Build developer conference in San Francisco, address some of the complaints leveled at the hybrid tablet and PC operating system that surfaced when it was released late last year.

The company also unveiled improvements to its Bing search engine, built-in support for 3-D printers, an updated Xbox Music app, and new tools for developers making WIndows 8 applications.

“The PC, the Windows device of today, doesn’t look a lot like the PC of 10 years ago or of 15 years ago,” said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer at a keynote address kicking off the conference.

Ballmer outlined some of the new changes to Windows 8.1, which he described as a “refined blend.”

When the radically different, touchscreen-optimized system came out eight months ago, many Windows users were upset about radical departure from the typical Windows interface, especially the lack of a Start button. The button is back, and now it leads to a list of all your applications.

The company announced a few new applications for Windows 8, including an official Facebook app, Flipboard and NFL Fantasy football. Though there was a brief preview of a new version of PowerPoint for WIndows 8, the next version of the Microsoft Office suite won’t be released until 2014.

The speedy Windows 8 update is part of Microsoft’s new approach to releasing fixes and adding features to products.

The software and hardware company is now focused on a “rapid release” cycle, which will let it roll out changes to software in a matter of months instead of years. It has already released a number of changes to Windows 8, but this version is the biggest overhaul so far.

A free preview version of the Windows 8.1 update for developers is available to anyone interested in installing it. The version for regular consumers will come out later this year.

Other changes include the ability to boot directly into the desktop, more flexibility with the tiles on the Start screen, support for high-resolution displays, and greater Bing integration.

“Search is not just a list of links, it’s things you can do,” said Julie Larson-Green, corporate vice president of Windows, who demonstrated some new Bing features.

Developers can now tap into Bing, which has opened up access to its 3-D maps, entities and knowledge database, and natural user interfaces.

The big Xbox Music update is a radio feature that builds a station for listeners based on a song, much like Pandora.

As part of a feature coming later this year, people will be able to automatically create Xbox Music playlists based on Web pages, like a Pitchfork list of top songs of the year.

Microsoft also highlighted a few of the of the 3,000 Windows 8 certified tablets, PCs and hybrids, including an 18-inch Dell tablet. It highlighted more touchscreen devices, “workhorse” 2-in-1 tablets and smaller tablets.

“We’re going to see a proliferation of Windows 8 small tablet devices over the next few months,” said Ballmer.

Microsoft’s own entry in to the hardware world wasn’t forgotten. After some scripted banter about how much they loved their own Surface tablets, presenters announced that developers attending the conference would all receive free Surface Pros. Attendees will also get Acer Iconia W3 tablets.

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