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Microsoft parades Windows 8.1, the version you may actually want

Outlook, Office, Start button

Screenshot of Windows 8.1's revamped Start screen

Computex 2013 Microsoft today demonstrated Windows 8.1 for the first time in public and showed off at least 60 compatible devices - including Haswell-powered gadgets.

Windows vice-president Antoine Leblond took the Computex crowd through a whistlestop tour of all the major new functionality in the OS formerly known as Windows Blue.

Key among these, first unveiled last week, are the return of the Start icon; improvements to the touchscreen keyboard; optimisation for cheaper tablets smaller than the 10 and 11-inchers Windows 8 was built for; and the ability to view multiple apps on the same screen to create a “rich productivity experience”.

“With Windows 8.1 we bring new management capabilities and great advancements in security and mobility. It [has been] made better through customer feedback,” said Windows chief finance and marketing officer Tami Reller. The free upgrade is due to arrive later this year.

In a bid to help Microsoft own a bigger share of the mobile computing space, email app Outlook and the Office suite will now ship "in-box" on Windows RT notebooks and tablets. Support for Intel Bay Trail, Qualcomm 8974 and Nvidia T40 processors was also announced.

Nick Parker, Redmond’s vice-president for OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), also demonstrated Windows on a range of devices, from all-in-ones to small tablets, as part of Microsoft's ongoing attempt to prove its new OS can appeal outside of the corporate sphere.

Sony’s newly announced flagship 11in ultrabook, the Haswell-based Vaio Pro 11, was probably the pick, weighing in at a feather-light 900g, but there was also mention of Acer’s new Iconia W3 7 inch tablet and Lenovo’s Lynx 8 incher.

The message from Parker and his Redmond colleagues on stage was one of Windows 8.1 combining with innovative hardware to “advance the vision” – a notably conciliatory tone considering the recent sniping by certain Taiwanese OEMs following Microsoft’s Surface launch.

That furore seems to have died down now, thanks in part to poor Surface sales, according to analysts.

“But they do still feel bitten by the fact Microsoft took the steps it did to create its own hardware in the first place, so it's still not yet a fully healthy relationship between Microsoft and its OEMs,” Forrester principal analyst David Johnson told El Reg.

“That's going to take more time to flush out, but I do think Microsoft needs to have better control over the total user experience than it has in the past, so Surface, more than anything, is a warning sign for the OEMs to do their part.”

As for how successful Windows 8.1 will be for the firm, it’s going to be tough to displace Android and iOS in the tablet space and attract corporate customers - many of whom are preoccupied with migrating from XP to Windows 7 before the April 2014 deadline, according to Ovum analyst Richard Edwards.

“The new security and connectivity features of Windows 8.1 announced this week will be of interest to enterprise IT professionals, but they are unlikely to boost demand from the workforce or sales within the consumer market,” he told El Reg.

“Microsoft has the resources to ‘fix’ Windows 8, but it should realize that its days of almost total domination are now over. Diversity is now a fact-of-life within in the world of end user computing, with BYOD and BYOA redefining the corporate IT landscape.”

IDC veep Bob O’Donnell had a similar message for Microsoft, arguing that the new Windows release would not be enough on its own to rejuvenate PC sales.

“I think Microsoft and Intel need to come together and focus on the core productivity benefits of PCs and not let them get distracted with trying to be all things to everyone,” he added.

“PCs are still better at many things than tablets and smartphones, but I think that message has been lost and needs to be revived in order to get people focused on the benefits that PCs offer.” ®

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