Microsoft Shows Off Windows 8.1, Pledges More Apps & Touch PCs

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At its Build developers conference today, Microsoft demo’d some of the new features in the just released public preview of Windows 8.1, including a more customizable Start Screen, a new Bing search charm, and new built-in apps. Microsoft is also using the conference as a platform for promising many more third-party Windows apps, along with a plethora of touch-enabled devices from Microsoft’s hardware partners.

The number of apps in the Windows Store now exceeds 100,000, said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, during a keynote. Although still small in comparison to the apps available for iOS or Android, that’s a big improvement over the number available when Windows 8 launched last November.

At the Build conference today, software partners announcing new Windows apps include Flipboard, Facebook and the NFL.

Microsoft is also working hard with OEMs around Windows 8.1, according to Ballmer.

“When we brought out Windows 8 we talked about touch, touch, touch, touch,” he said during the keynote. Now, Microsoft and OEMs will place a “real focus on bringing touch to market,” he promised.

“Customers that have touch-enabled PCs are much happier,” according to the CEO.

New touch-enabled PCs will range from small tablets, to “workforce two-in-one tablets,” to notebooks and desktop machines.

“You will see literally an outpouring of notebooks that are touch-accessible,” Ballmer contended.

Ballmer: ‘Refining the Blend’

Microsoft had used blog posts to preannounce many of the new Windows 8.1 features mentioned during the keynote, including the return of the Start Button, the new Start Screen, and the ability to circumvent the Modern UI Start Screen by booting directly to the desktop.

Yet although the Start Button will be present in Windows 8.1, the Start Menu will be absent. If you click on the Start Button, you’ll be brought instead to the Modern UI Start Screen.

Also during the keynote today, Julie Larson-Green, Microsoft’s corporate VP for Windows Experience, noted that Windows 8.1 will allow you to turn the Lock screen into “a live slideshow of all of your pictures.”

In addition, 8.1’s Modern UI will display icons for four times as many apps as Windows 8’s UI, she said.

Ballmer characterized these changes as ways of “refining the blend” between the Modern UI and classic desktops.

New Apps from Microsoft, Too

In addition to the third-party apps that Microsoft is recruiting for the Windows Store, the apps built into Windows 8 will be either brand new or completely redesigned, according to Larson-Green.

In demos, Larson-Green showed off a new search charm in 8.1 that will bring together results from many different content sources, such as the web, apps, files, and SkyDrive.

Search results should not be just a list of links, but “things you can do,” according to the VP. To demonstrate, she conducted a search for “San Francisco,” bringing up a slick-looking results page that included photos and maps of San Francisco, and the weather.

Microsoft is also “opening up Bing as an app development platform for third-party developers, she said.

The VP also showed off new built-in photo editing features in 8.1’s SkyDrive, along with a new built-in menu and meal planning app called Food and Drink which will allow you to work in the kitchen in “hands-free mode” by using the camera to “flip the pages without touching the screen.”

A new RT version of PowerPoint, still in alpha, will offer “transitions and high quality graphics,” plus integration with touch and notifications, she said.

Microsoft is also readying a new mail client with a “power panel” which will let you organize messages by categories such as “social” and “newsletters.”

If you want to clean up your mailbox by getting rid of newsletters, you’ll be able to delete all newsletters or “delete all but the latest,” Larson-Green said.

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