* CEO Ballmer says listened to user feedback
* Promises "rapid release cycle" for Windows
* Some developers react favorably, others see no point
By Malathi Nayak and Bill Rigby
SAN FRANCISCO/SEATTLE, June 26 Microsoft Corp
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 into writing more applications for it.
The updated Windows, which was signaled 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.
"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.
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
Microsoft shares closed up 2 percent 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 Inc
and Google Inc.
THUMBS-UP FROM WINDOWS FANS
The response from the thousands of developers at the
conference in San Francisco was broadly positive, although
attendees tend to be Windows die-hards.
"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 AB, 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
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.
Microsoft also said Wednesday that Facebook Inc 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 1 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 Inc 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."
MORE EVANGELISM NEEDED
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
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 on Wednesday that the Windows Store was
approaching 100,000 apps. Meanwhile, Apple is nearing 1 million,
with Android not far behind.