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Microsoft's Ballmer offers Windows 8.1 preview and admits past mistakes

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has promised tighter product release cycles going forward as he unveiled a preview version of the first major Windows 8 update, as well as other new Microsoft products, at the company's Build developer conference.

"We are moving towards being an absolutely rapid-release cycle company. Rapid release, rapid release," Ballmer said during an opening keynote at San Francisco's Moscone Convention Center. "It's not a one-time thing. We're certainly going to show you Windows 8.1 today, but you can think of it as a new norm, what we're doing with our developers and partners, in products like Windows and Azure, and more."

Microsoft's Windows 8.1 update, often referred to by the internal code name Blue, addresses some of the complaints generated by last year's much ballyhooed but critically panned Windows 8 release.

"We're bringing back the Start button," Ballmer said to applause from the audience. "If you want to boot to the desktop, you can boot to the desktop."

Windows 8 was criticised by many for its radical departure from the traditional Windows interface. Microsoft, it seems, heard those complaints from long-time Windows loyalists and acted on them.

Indeed, Ballmer promised that 8.1 will deliver "a refined blend of our traditional desktop experience and our modern interface."

He also admitted that Windows 8, though celebrated by Redmond for its optimisation for touch-based interfaces, didn't immediately result in as many touch-enabled PCs hitting the market as Microsoft had hoped.

"With Windows 8, we talked touch, touch, touch, but when you saw PCs in the store a lot of them didn't have touch," he said. That will change going forward as more and more PCs and hybrid tablet devices appear, Ballmer promised, adding that Microsoft's user research suggested Windows 8 users with touch-based laptops and all-in-one PCs were much happier with their systems than those with non-touch enabled PCs.

Microsoft is also touting smaller Windows tablets more so than the full-sized, 10in-and-above slates that appeared in the first wave following the operating system's 2012 release. Build attendees will get their hands on one such compact Windows tablet, Acer's new, 8.1in Iconia.

"It's a perfect device for a student, a very small-and-light device, yet you can add a keyboard," Ballmer said of Acer's new tablet. "This small form factor is very important. I wouldn't call it a PC but you can touch it, feel it, it comes with Office and a full range of PC applications. You will see a lot of these small factor tablets with Windows."

The Microsoft CEO said more powerful "two-in-one" laptops that also serve as tablets will also be important for the company in 2013. He noted that Lenovo and other Microsoft partners are making powerful yet light two-in-one devices that utilise workhorse chips like Intel's Core i7 yet still offer "all-day battery life."

Ballmer touched on new developments for Windows Phone as well, running down recent Windows Phone handsets offered by key partners like Nokia while also announcing that Sprint has rolled out the first Windows Phones available on its 4G LTE network—the HTC 8XT and Samsung's Ativ S Neo.

Finally, Microsoft is tying Bing into its software platforms more tightly, Ballmer said. The company is "opening up Bing as application development platform" with the release of Windows 8.1, he announced.

"It's time to refine Bing. So with Windows 8.1, Bing is inside and our shell experience is powered by Bing," Ballmer said.