Microsoft Previews Free Windows 8.1 Update at Build

Windows goes free. The company plans to release the keyboard- and mouse-friendly Windows 8.1 Update on April 8, but developers can kick the tires now.

Windows 8.1

April 8 is a big day for Microsoft. Not only is the company saying good-bye to Windows XP, the date will also mark the release of the Windows 8.1 Update, announced Microsoft Corporate Vice President Joe Belfiore at the Build developer conference in San Francisco on April 2. Developers get to test the software now.

After giving attendees a glimpse at the new, more personalized Windows Phone 8.1 mobile operating system (OS)—including a demo of its Cortana digital assistant technology—Belfiore previewed some of the improvements and features that the company is rolling out in the new update. As expected, the update will make it easier for owners of traditional, non-touch systems to use the OS. The update will also include a new feature in Internet Explorer 11 (IE11) to allow organizations to interact with legacy corporate sites.

As rumored, Windows goes back to it its desktop roots somewhat without backtracking on touch. During an on-stage demo, Belfiore showed Microsoft has enabled "the PC to boot or resume straight to the desktop," a change that the company implemented in Windows 8.1. Carrying the traditional desktop theme forward, he spotlighted "one of the most used areas of computing real estate in the universe," namely the Windows taskbar.

The taskbar, a staple of the traditional desktop, now sprouts from the bottom of the screen when a user moves the mouse pointer to that area, allowing them to quickly switch to other applications. Similarly, in Modern apps (formerly Metro), a user can move the pointer to the top of the screen to minimize and close apps, a behavior that longtime Windows users expect. By bringing these features to the Windows 8.1 Update, users "no longer have to think about" working with Windows applications, whether they are Win32 or Modern apps, said Belfiore.

Later during the same keynote, Terry Myerson, executive vice president of the Operating System group, asserting that Microsoft is "going all-in with this desktop experience," showed off a resurrected Start Menu in the desktop view, with features that allow users to explore and discover Windows Store apps. In addition, Windows 8.1 will allow universal applications to run in a desktop Window, no longer forcing developers strictly into the Modern app UI or desktop view.

Belfiore also showed off Microsoft's work on delivering a "powerful and quick way to interact with the start screen with a mouse." Mouse and keyboard users can now reorganize their start screens by "grabbing" multiple tiles by using a command key to select them and using the mouse to reposition them.

The tile-based start screen has been revamped with the addition of a PC settings tile, a power button and a search button. A new app icon that appears on the bottom of the screen ensures that newly installed apps are no longer lost in the shuffle.

Turning his attention to internal business Web apps that were built for earlier versions of IE, but may fail to render or work properly on newer versions, Belfiore announced Enterprise Mode in IE 11. Administrators can set corporate sites on their internal networks to invoke functions and capabilities that were once used in previous iterations of IE, many of which may have been deprecated. In effect, an app built for IE 8 won't have to be rewritten for IE 11 and will preserve the original functionality.

Finally, Myerson addressed pricing. Invoking the increasingly popular Internet of Things theme, "we really want to get this platform out there," he said. Therefore, the new version of Windows "will be available for zero dollars," he announced to thunderous applause. That pricing carries over to tablets smaller than 9 inches.

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez is a contributor to eWEEK and the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals. Previously, he served as a managing editor for the network of...