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Microsoft aims to simplify with Windows 8.1

Caption
(Richard Drew)
FILE - Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer gives his presentation at the launch of Microsoft Windows 8, in New York, in this Oct. 25, 2012 file photo. Microsoft is retooling the latest version of its Windows operating system to address complaints and confusion that have been blamed for deepening a slump in personal computer sales. The tune up announced Tuesday May 7, 2013 won't be released to consumers and businesses until later this year. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

SAN FRANCISCO – Microsoft is trying to fix what it got wrong with its radical makeover of Windows. It’s making the operating system easier to navigate and enabling users to set up the software so it starts in a more familiar format designed for personal computers.

The revisions to Windows 8 will be released later this year. The free update, called Windows 8.1, represents Microsoft’s concessions to long-time customers taken aback by the dramatic changes to an operating system that had become a staple in households and offices around the world during the past 20 years.

Microsoft Corp. announced it plans for Windows 8.1 earlier this month. The first details about what will be included in the update are being provided in a Thursday post on Microsoft’s website.

The Redmond, Wash., company gave The Associated Press a glimpse at Windows 8.1 Wednesday. A more extensive tour of Windows 8.1 and several new applications built into the upgrade will be provided in San Francisco at a Microsoft conference for programmers scheduled to begin June 26.

With the release of Windows 8 seven months ago, Microsoft introduced a startup screen displaying applications in a mosaic of interactive tiles instead of static icons.

The shift agitated many users who wanted the option to launch the operating system in a mode that resembled the old setup.

That choice will be provided in Windows 8.1, although Microsoft isn’t bringing back the start menu. That menu that could be found in the left-hand corner of a computer screen by clicking a Windows logo on all other versions of the operating system since 1995. The lack of a start button ranks among the biggest gripes about Windows 8.

Microsoft is hoping to quiet the critics by allowing users start the operating system in a desktop design with an omnipresent Windows logo anchored in the lower left corner of the display screen. Users will also be able to ensure their favorite applications, including Word and Excel, appear in a horizontal task bar next to the Windows logo.

The switch should ease the “cognitive dissonance” caused by Windows 8, said Antoine Leblond, who helps oversee the operating system’s program management.

Windows 8.1 will lean heavily on Microsoft’s Bing search technology to simplify things.

As with Windows 8, the search bar can found by pulling out a menu from the right side of a display screen. Rather than requiring a user to select a category, such as “files” or “apps,” Windows 8.1 will make it possible to find just about anything available on the computer’s hard drive or on the Web by just typing in a few words. For instance, a search for “Marilyn Monroe” might display biographical information about the late movie star pulled from the Web, a selection of photos and video and even songs she sang. Anyone who want to hear a particular song stored on the computer or play a specific game such as “Angry Birds” will just need to type a title into the search box to gain access within seconds.

The redesigned search tool is meant to provide Windows 8.1 users with “pure power and instant entertainment,” said Jensen Harris, Microsoft’s director of user experience for the operating system.

Applications also can be found by sorting them by letter or category.

Other new features in Windows 8.1 include a built-in connection with Microsoft’s online storage system, SkyDrive, to back up photos, music and program files; a lock-up screen that will display a slide show of a user’s favorite pictures; larger and smaller interactive tiles than Windows 8 has; and a photo editor.

In an effort to avoid any further confusion about the operating system, Windows 8.1 also will plant a tile clearly labeled “helps and tips” in the center of the startup screen.

Microsoft made the dramatic overhaul to Windows in an attempt to expand the operating system’s franchise beyond personal computers that rely on keyboards and mice to smartphones and tablet computers controlled by a touch or swipe of the finger.

But Windows 8 has been widely panned as a disappointment, even though Microsoft says it has licensed more than 60 million copies so far.

One major research firm, International Data Corp., blamed the redesigned operating system for worsening a decline in PC sales by confusing prospective buyers. Meanwhile, Windows 8 hasn’t proven it’s compelling enough to put a major dent in the popularity of Apple Inc.’s pioneering iPad or other tablets running on Google Inc.’s Android software.

Microsoft, though, remains convinced that Windows 8 just needs a little fine tuning.

“We feel good about the basic bets that we have made,” Leblond said.

It’s crucial that Microsoft sets things right with Windows 8.1 because the outlook for the PC market keeps getting gloomier. IDC now expects PC shipments to fall by nearly 8 percent this year, worse than its previous forecast of a 1 percent dip. IDC also anticipates tablets will outsell laptop computers for the first time this year.

The growing popularity of tablets is now being driven largely by less expensive devices with 7- and 8-inch display screens. Microsoft built Windows 8 to primarily to run on tablets with 10-inch to 12-inch screens, an oversight that Leblond said the company is addressing by ensuring Windows 8.1 works well on smaller devices.

If Windows 8.1 doesn’t stimulate more sales of PCs and tablets running on the operating system, it could escalate the pressure on Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Although the company’s revenue and earnings have steadily risen since Ballmer became CEO 13 years ago, Microsoft’s stock performance has lagged other technology companies. Investors, though, appear to becoming more optimistic about Ballmer’s strategy. Microsoft’s stock has risen by 25 percent since Windows 8’s release last October, outpacing the 17 percent gain in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index during the same period.

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