Microsoft gives out preview of Windows 8.1

Microsoft store employee Judy Thao gives a search demonstration on a Fujitsu tablet at a Microsoft event in San Francisco.
Microsoft store employee Judy Thao gives a search demonstration on a Fujitsu tablet at a Microsoft event in San Francisco.

SAN FRANCISCO — Microsoft Corp. on Wednesday released a preview version of a Windows 8 update, aiming to address some gripes people have with the company’s flagship operating system.

At a conference, Chief Executive Steve Ballmer acknowledged Microsoft pushed hard to get people to adopt a radical tile-based “Modern” user interface in Windows 8. Microsoft is back-pedaling, making it easier to reach and use the older “desktop” interface.

“Let’s make it easier to start applications the way we’re used to,” Mr. Ballmer told the audience of software developers. “What we will show you today is a refined blend of our Desktop experience and our Modern experience.”

Microsoft made the preview of Windows 8.1 available for free as a download.

Windows 8.1 will allow users to boot up in Desktop mode. There, they’ll find a button that resembles the old Start button. It won’t take users to the old Start menu, but to the new “Modern” Windows 8 start screen. Still, the reintroduction of the familiar button may make it easier for longtime Windows users to get accustomed to the changes. A common complaint about Windows 8 is it hides features and functions, and replaces buttons with gestures and invisible click zones that have to be memorized.

Other new features of Windows 8.1 include more options to use multiple apps. People will be able to determine how much of the screen each app takes while showing up to four programs, rather than just two. The update also will offer more integrated search results, showing users previews of Web sites, apps, and documents that are on the device, all at once.

Microsoft also touted an array of applications specifically written for Windows 8, among them one from Facebook.

Frank Gillett, an analyst with research firm Forrester, said that with 8.1, Microsoft is doing a better job of uniting the Desktop and Modern screens, but the changes don’t run deep. “They smoothed off some rough edges, but they don’t fundamentally change the experience of having two experiences within one operating system,” he said.

The preview version of 8.1 is meant for Microsoft’s partners and other tech developers, but anyone can download it. The release comes eight months after desktops, laptops, and tablets with Windows 8 went on sale. The version of the 8.1 update meant for the general public will come later in the year.